The energy industry has been described as “not very diverse.” According to the Center for Energy Workforce Development, utility employees are 78% male and 76% White.
How public power leaders foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) within their utilities matters both for employees and as a positive public demonstration. Utilities are working to create workforces that reflect the communities they serve. These efforts vary. Some utilities support increased STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education for future employees. Many work to increase job opportunities for women, especially in the skilled trades. Local leaders make a concerted effort to appoint more diverse governing boards and senior utility management.
Yet the evolving DEI area has its own set of challenges. How public power leaders work to increase representation in leadership roles, recruit and hire diverse candidates, and then retain diverse talent is approached differently in every community. Advancing DEI initiatives could be as simple as revisiting long-standing practices. Job descriptions that use gender-specific terminology (like “lineman” or “journeyman”) or require degrees and experience not necessary to perform a job could repel prospective candidates. This is especially true for skilled trades, where recruitment and retention has been difficult.
Lack of inclusion is a significant challenge for retaining diverse talent. The Snohomish County Public Utility District in Washington state has been intentional in creating an environment in which all staff can feel welcomed and valued. Through a partnership with RootWorks, LLC, the PUD has conducted a diversity, equity, and inclusion assessment and offered training for leadership. The utility has also used focus groups and one-on-one and group discussions with employees, and organized a cross-functional inclusion committee. The goal is to continue to invest in creating an environment and culture where the utility honors and respects differences and leverages the unique experiences and perspectives where everyone can feel welcomed and valued.
In Texas, Austin Energy designates employees who are encouraged to provide a DEI inclusion moment in meetings.
Public power utilities have also increased recruitment efforts for women and historically underrepresented people. Also in Washington, Tacoma Power has a dedicated program to advance women in the trades. Program materials tout skilled trades positions through the utility’s electrical apprenticeship program for women interested in working with their hands and who enjoy building and creating projects. The utility has provided funding for the Trade Occupations Opportunity Learning Center, a general construction pre-apprenticeship program operated by Bates Technical College.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s governing board recently approved a five-year, $5 million research partnership with engineering schools at 15 historically Black colleges and universities across the nation. The initiative will coordinate technical and scientific research on behalf of the nation’s largest municipal utility.
“LADWP has incredibly challenging goals ahead of us, and guaranteeing that we have consistent access to high quality scientific research is an essential part of staying on target,” said Cynthia McClain-Hill, president of the utility’s governing board. The utility works with an organization, Advancing Minorities’ Interest in Engineering. The historically Black colleges and universities have a strong tradition of empowering African Americans who were long excluded from higher education and job opportunities, she said.
In October 2020, the Board of Water and Power Commissioners became the first all-female city commission in Los Angeles history.
“This initiative is an example of what the department’s development of a racial equity action plan and the creation of an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are meant to do — to create opportunities where there may not have been before,” said Martin L. Adams, LADWP’s general manager and chief engineer. “As LADWP attracts top scientific talent for our next generation, we must also keep equity in mind to ensure we are reaching potential candidates who may not have been traditionally represented in our ranks and in the utility industry,” said Monique Earl, LADWP senior assistant general manager and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
In addition to collaboration on research projects, LADWP will work closely with the schools’ research faculty and curriculum developers to enhance training on the diverse set of fields required to manage Los Angeles’s water and power utilities.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is also increasing DEI initiatives to help build strong communities. TVA has dedicated $7 million in education grants to help 100 K-12 public schools make smart energy choices to improve the classroom learning environment. The federal utility is also spending more than $3 million to ensure equitable access to services, economic empowerment, and energy and environmental justice. It is spending $2.5 million to make the future low-carbon economy equitable, diverse, and inclusive, and it has developed training to guide suppliers through the contracting process. In 2021, TVA spent $856 million with small businesses and $365 million with diverse businesses.