Our workforce is our greatest asset, but also our greatest challenge. To put a finer point on it: People are essential to operating a public power system, and the right people are essential to achieving our mission of delivering reliable, affordable, and safe electricity to our communities. These are seemingly obvious statements, but they might not be obvious to the average American. I would venture to say that most Americans have no idea how much work it takes to deliver such a reliable service day in and day out. This lack of understanding has roots in how much we learn about science, technology, engineering and math (the STEM subjects) in our schools. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress by the National Science Board, in 2015, only about one-third of eighth graders and less than one-quarter of 12th graders in the United States showed proficiency in science.
The American Public Power Association and others in the energy industry have been working to support STEM education, and build energy literacy, in our secondary schools, but in the interim we have sought other ways to tell our story. And our public power story must be told — it is an inspiring one that often spurs those who hear it to consider careers in our communities. Public power utilities have developed relationships with vocational schools, community colleges and universities, in addition to trying to find creative inroads into secondary schools. They have used social media to highlight utility activities, including during Public Power Week (the first full week in October every year), provided scholarships to worthy students, and created competitions to entice aspiring engineers, among many other efforts. They have done a lot. But the absence of knowledge persists. And that lack of knowledge about the energy industry affects everything from recruiting to hiring to retaining talented staff. It also affects decision-making by policymakers who have little sense of what we do and how we do it.
As we continue to tackle this education and communication challenge, there are some bright spots for public power. First, our not-for-profit service orientation is very appealing to many people. Second, the ability for a talented worker to effect positive change at the utility is more possible given public power’s smaller size and lack of bureaucracy compared to our investor-owned utility and oil-and-gas brethren. Third, the changes facing our industry require determined and innovative thinkers of all kinds. Fourth, the public power utility of the future is not just about engineers and line workers. (In reality, the present public power utility isn’t, either, but bear with me, and don’t get me wrong — we still love and need them 24/7/365!) What I mean is that the public power utility of the future will be even more dynamic, for example as we seek to enable our customers’ distributed energy resources in interacting seamlessly with our distribution grids. Communicating customers’ options, interfacing with their technology, analyzing data, and applying lessons learned from that data will require workers with different skill sets than we’ve needed previously. And that is exciting.
As we continue to respond as a society to the coronavirus pandemic, there might be one more thing many public power utilities can bring to the table to entice such highly skilled, motivated and dynamic workers. Our small and medium towns could be appealing to many city dwellers tired of living so tightly packed or to those whom the pandemic gave time to reflect on the drawbacks of the rat race. We’ll see. And I think our larger, city-based public power members are well situated to demonstrate how their utilities have risen to the challenge in their own communities.
Regardless, the changing focus of our industry can be an opportunity to enhance our incredibly talented and effective public power workforce by attracting workers of different skill sets and backgrounds. This variety in our talent pool will inevitably lead to more innovation, which will help us help our communities spur economic development, improve our customer service, and lead the industry into the future.