Powering Strong Communities

Building a strong utility workforce: Developing people first

As utility operations become more complex, the utility workforce must encompass a wider or different array of skills and core competencies. Focusing on the long-term picture, public power utilities are looking for customer-centric, technology-focused, self-motivated team players who want to provide the best service when they show up for work every day. To get to this desired workforce, public power utilities are finding ways to develop, recruit, and retain people with the right set of skills.

More than a decade ago, the Center for Energy Workforce Development painted a grim picture of the energy industry’s employment future: Many seasoned employees were expected to retire within the decade, and utilities lacked incoming skilled workers.

The situation called public power utilities to action, sparking change in recruitment, education, outreach, and company culture to ensure future success. The efforts have paid off and are expected to continue the influx of new, skilled employees to the energy industry.

Shifting the culture

A few years ago, Mark Gambill was an experienced journey lineworker with the electrical department for the city of Kingfisher in Oklahoma, where he worked under a superintendent who had what Gambill called an “outdated mindset.” The superintendent didn’t want to put energy into developing and training new hires out of fear that employees would take those skills to competitors. Gambill said it created a culture in which employees were not encouraged to gain knowledge and grow with the utility.

When the superintendent retired, Gambill became director of the electric department and immediately began to work with leadership to change the stagnant culture. Some of the changes began upfront, starting with ensuring the utility offered a competitive wage and benefits package. Leadership also moved to eliminate some of the potentially prohibitive startup costs to new employees by outfitting employees with the gear needed and sending new hires to climbing school.

Ensuring wages and benefits are competitive is a crucial component to recruitment and retention at the McPherson Board of Public Utilities in Kansas as well.

“In today’s world, employees are looking at the opportunities and benefits a job has, considering the flexibilities a company has from a work perspective, including family protection through health care and sick leave,” said Tim Maier, general manager for the McPherson BPU.

Since Maier started with the utility 37 years ago, McPherson has updated its policies, providing family sick leave, more vacation days — including the ability to accrue those vacation days more quickly — and additional holiday time off. Leadership also ensures that the utility’s wages are competitive, within 5% and 10% of the union wages for linemen and mechanics in the region.

Developing people and teams

In addition to competitive wages and benefits, Kingfisher now offers robust training programs and clear career growth opportunities. It provides employees free apprenticeship training and pays for employees’ journeyman training if they agree to stay with the utility for three years. The utility’s training program gained Department of Labor journeyman certification, so employees can attain their certificate free while working full time. The program also focuses on recruiting veterans who can use GI Bill benefits during training.

The option for employees to earn their DOL journeyman certification on the job helps the utility with recruitment. Several competitors in the area require employees to have already earned the three-year apprenticeship certificate, which can be a significant barrier to employment. Instead, Kingfisher employees earn the certificate surrounded by a team of seasoned employees who can help them learn.

The opportunity for advancement helps new employees understand the value of taking advantage of those advancement opportunities and sticking with the utility long-term.

“We tell them that we have a viable skill here,” Gambill said. “We will teach you over 10 years, you can earn a journeyman card, and you will triple or quadruple your starting wage.”

“My lead lineman now has 14 years of experience,” Gambill said. “He’s going to a supervisory school now, and when younger employees see that, it builds them up.”

Anaheim Public Utilities in California offers many avenues for employees to advance their careers as well. Employees can participate in the city’s mentor-mentee program, where they are paired with employees in other city departments, such as police or parks and recreation.

The program takes seasoned managers and pairs them with newer or other city folks. It gives an opportunity for some of the newer employees to engage professionally with more experienced employees, and talking about goals and successes,” said Melissa Seifen, communications supervisor at APU. “Newer employees do role-playing exercises to help them think about how they would handle challenges in a supervisory position. It’s a good opportunity for folks looking to progress.”

Employees can also participate in a rotational opportunity program, where they are exposed to the various positions available in the utility. Employees can participate in job shadowing to better understand future opportunities, allowing Anaheim to hire internally more often.

What are considered entry-level positions tend to attract folks with secondary degrees. They come in, taking an entry-level position, and hope to grow,” said Melinda Avelino-Walker, Anaheim’s general services manager. “We identify what types of positions we have with opportunities for cross exposure.”

We see a lot of talent and folks with great skill sets, so we want to ensure it’s understood that if they want an opportunity to go in a different direction, they have that opportunity,” she said.

Cross-generational learning

Creating teams of more experienced employees with newer and younger employees helps demonstrate growth opportunities — and strengthens Kingfisher in unexpected ways.

“When I first joined the workforce, you were told to do something, and you did it. But that’s not how it is for the younger generation,” Gambill said. “If you give a younger employee a splash of the ‘why,’ they understand the purpose better — and they might see a better way [of doing something] than we could have dreamed.”

Maier noted that younger employees tend to be more tech-savvy, which helps the team when new equipment is introduced and in adopting advanced metering infrastructure and system automation.

At McPherson, employees from older generations typically have more experience and understand the systems extensively, so they are crew leaders. However, younger and newer employees offer more insight from a technology perspective. Because crews are mobile and rely on technology in the field, having younger people on each team is an advantage.

“The younger workers help people who have not grown up with that technology, so it’s a great complement,” Maier said.

Finding the right fit

A key component to building strong, generationally diverse teams is finding the right new hires. Finding the right employee no longer means focusing on a resume of specific skills. Now, it means finding the right type of person, one with the ability to be a team player, adapt to changing circumstances and maintain a positive attitude.

“All of my team members have different personalities. You can watch them and see how they work in a team environment. Different personalities are what make a great team,” Gambill said.

Successful utilities look beyond traditional skills on a resume to get to the root of an employee’s personality and spot the soft skills that will make employees team players and signal longer-term retention.

When recruiting, Gambill looks for people with deep roots in the community. He looks for people who have a strong work ethic who will work well on the crew and will not be afraid to get their hands dirty.

McPherson recruits employees with similar traits, focusing on people who have a positive attitude, are self-motivated, and work well with others. To ensure employees have these traits, McPherson in part relies on its internship program. It brings on two interns each year who work with the company for 60 to 90 days, allowing leadership to evaluate whether they fit with the team before making a hiring decision.

“You can teach people skills, but you can’t teach attitude and drive,” Maier said. “Some people can form good relationships with coworkers, and other people can’t.”

McPherson also developed a company culture that gives employees a lot of accountability. “We don’t micromanage employees, so we need people who want to do a good job and take pride in what they do,” said Maier.

These types of employees are also naturally customer-centric because they take pride in themselves and their professions — and in public power, often are members of the community in which they work.

A deep pipeline

To enhance recruitment and keep a steady pipeline of future workers, Anaheim Public Utilities focused on creating clear pathways to growth. For prospective employees, this means educating young people about the opportunities in public power.

Approximately five years ago, APU partnered with a local high school district to offer a mentorship program. Each fall, the utility develops four mentorship sessions led by managers and supervisors who mentor three to four students each, about different areas of public power. They meet once a month for four months to discuss various careers available in public power, work on interview skills, and tour different utility facilities to get a look at the various working environments. 

As a public utility, at the end of the day, we’re all working toward providing water and power, but a lot of different careers exist in our industry,” said Avelino-Walker. “So, it made sense for us to expose high school students to those opportunities.”

The public power utility also hosts a yearly Career Path Symposium, a half-day conference during which 50 to 60 students learn about the many opportunities, as well as associated salaries, available in energy and water.

Anaheim offers internships to local high school students as well. “We find [students] might have a specific major in mind but don’t realize there are so many industries that major is applicable in, like public power,” Avelino-Walker said.

Anaheim offers one or two scholarships each year to students attending a two- to four-year accredited college or trade school. Recipients also can participate in a summer internship, where they work closely with other interns and employees. Interns are required to develop a sustainability activity that they teach to local second and third graders and give a presentation about their internship experience to company leadership.

The utility doesn’t just focus on older students — it plants the seeds young. Every year, APU hosts an event for second and third graders, where the students learn about electric safety and how electricity is generated. The utility recently constructed a new substation and invited students to tour the facility and learn how electricity goes from the substation to their homes.