Running a top-notch utility doesn’t mean having all the latest technology or equipment. While such items can help, a well-run utility is reliant on having the right people, with the right skills, in place. Getting and keeping the right people within your workforce — including those with specialized technical skills — is essential to maintaining operational excellence.
The U.S. unemployment rate has been hovering near a five-decade low, and job vacancies have been at near-record highs. In this tight job market, public power utilities must make efforts to showcase what it means to work for public power, rethink recruiting strategies, and look at ways to better support retaining employees.
Thinking Beyond Compensation
A common challenge is a constraint in being able to offer competitive salaries, especially for technical or specialized positions. A study by the Center for Workforce Development, a nonprofit consortium of more than 120 energy companies, associations, unions, educational institutions and government entities, showed that cooperatives and investor-owned utilities pay as much as 20%–30% more than public power utilities for some positions. Adding to the pressure, the report noted that “the skill sets of many utility jobs are transferable to other industries, and often these industries pay significantly more.”
Compensation is not the only draw for employees, and public power organizations should both highlight their unique strengths when recruiting and show how these strengths are shared with people already on board. Within public power, the appeal includes ensuring that employees believe in the mission and values of the organization, as those aligned with the community-focused spirit of public power may be less likely to leave for another job.
If you get a job with Chelan County Public Utility District in Washington state, don’t be surprised if you find yourself snowshoeing or skiing, hiking, or going to a movie with the general manager. Based in Wenatchee, Washington, the PUD serves about 48,000 customers in an area at the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers, with easy access to Lake Chelan and the backcountry of the Cascade Mountains. The area offers great hiking, mountain biking, skiing, snowshoeing, hunting, and fishing. The PUD is selling the chance to live in an outdoor wonderland, while also considering a work-life balance for employees.
Chelan County PUD is competing for workers in a red-hot job market. These days, Chelan is getting almost one-third of the applications it would normally get for an open position, said Kirk Hudson, general manager. “We used to get 200 to 300 applications for some positions; now we may get about 100,” he said. For positions that require special training or skills, that number is even smaller. Hudson said prior to the pandemic, an open engineering position would attract 10 résumés; now the PUD might get three.
It isn’t just recruiting that is a challenge — connecting with current employees has also been difficult.
“We’ve experienced more turnover than we’re accustomed to,” said Hudson. “We’ve really had to step up our recruiting and retention of employees, so we’re having to be creative with both our compensation and making sure people have meaningful work and growth opportunities.”
Hudson had a chance to discuss Chelan County PUD’s mission and values during a snowshoeing adventure with about dozen employees over a weekend in January.
“That was great. I really got to know some folks outside of work. Some of them were fairly new, and I hadn’t had a chance to spend any time with them,” he said. “We spent about four hours out in the wilderness. It was really pretty, and we had fun.”
Part of its focus on group activities is to help employees reconnect with each other and the organization after more than a year of working from home. Such activities also give employees the chance to take ownership of, and feel connected to, the PUD’s mission of helping the community.
Expanding the Pipeline
As the electrical industry moves to decarbonize, demand for engineers and employees with data-related skills will expand. To alleviate utilities competing against each other to hire people with specialized skills, the focus needs to move up the pipeline to develop more people with such skills and broaden the search to new avenues.
Scott Corwin, executive director of the Northwest Public Power Association, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that provides a variety of training courses for 150 public utility districts, electric cooperatives, and municipalities in the Western U.S. and Canada, said recruitment and retention is a challenge across the utility industry.
“It’s a challenge everyone is facing,” Corwin said. “There’s a shortage of workers in a lot of different roles, most notably with engineers, IT people, and folks on the operations side. You not only have to try to find them and then keep them, but it’s also a matter of keeping the flow of new employees coming.”
Corwin said that about a decade ago, the industry became keenly aware that the bulk of its workforce was getting close to retirement. Then the pandemic accelerated many workers’ retirement plans, leaving many utilities scrambling to find younger workers.
“You’re seeing a lot more outreach into schools, more mentorship programs, and very, very active recruitment for apprenticeship programs,” Corwin said. “We’ve lost several decades of experience in a very short time, so it’s a tough thing to address. The supply is tight, but demand is high.”
In January, the California Municipal Utilities Association received a $4 million grant from the California Workforce Development Board to help attract and train the workforce for state water, wastewater, and electric utilities. The grant is designed to support a statewide workforce development program for populations and communities currently underrepresented within the utility workforce. The initiative aims to develop resources to help utilities follow recruitment, training, and outreach best practices and to involve a wide swath of partner organizations.
Caleb Hall, director of education and training at the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association, said it is especially difficult for rural utilities to compete with companies like Amazon and Google for electrical engineers.
Hall also said many colleges have electrical engineering programs that don’t include courses on power distribution. TVPPA and the University of Tennessee partnered in 2010 to develop an engineering program to teach new engineers how the power distribution system works.
“To be an electrical engineer for a utility is much different from being an electrical engineer in other industries,” Hall said. “So, we started a program to educate new engineers on what they need to know to work in our industry.”
TVPPA is also working to attract apprentices by partnering with community colleges and providing additional training and certificate programs for journeymen with the hope of helping them continue their careers in public power.
Chelan County PUD currently has 30 apprentices in five different programs and is in the process of hiring 15 more apprentice trainees for five additional apprenticeship programs, said Tracy Hazen, recruiting program manager.
“We can’t find journeyman-level workers, so we have to grow our own talent through apprenticeships,” she said.
Chelan PUD also considers “relevant experience” in lieu of a four-year degree for most positions.
“We are definitely open to hiring those without degrees,” Hazen said, noting that the PUD has a very generous tuition reimbursement program for employees who want to pursue a relevant degree.
Finding the Right Match
A tight job market also means workers can be more discerning. That means the more employers can highlight all aspects of the organization or job, the more they can help potential recruits to picture themselves working with the organization.
“There are a lot fewer people saying, ‘I’m looking for a great opportunity,’ but are looking for certain geography or don’t want to work in an office,” Hazen said. “Most people today are very focused and take the time to figure out what they want.”
In addition to increasing its outreach at college job fairs and in schools, Chelan has been using targeted online advertising to attract potential workers. If job hunters are searching online, they are likely to start seeing advertisements for Chelan County PUD. The PUD has also made a series of videos, mostly shot from a drone, to play at local movie theaters highlighting the beauty of Chelan County alongside the PUD’s mission of being an environmental steward while building infrastructure that supports local economic development. Chelan County PUD generates nearly 100% of its electricity from three hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River.
“The videos have been really helpful,” Hazen said, because they show “the beauty of our area and how it’s just an awesome place to live.”
“We’re trying to reach people who are very service-focused, who want to be a part of an organization that contributes to the community. If you come to work here, you’ll work in a beautiful place and you’ll be supporting renewable, clean energy development. That’s something that matters to a lot of people,” she said.
Chelan is also investing heavily in its facilities. The utility plans to open its new $160 million, eight-building campus later this year. When operational, about 500 of the PUD’s 700 employees will work on the 19-acre campus.
“We are investing in both our assets and our employees. We really want to give our employees a great facility, great tools, and great technology to help them grow,” Hudson said.
But the most attractive selling point for public power remains its dedication to serving the people in the community, he said.
“I would contend we have a very attractive organization from a mission and vision standpoint,” Hudson said. “I don’t know many organizations whose mission is to enhance the quality of life in the community you serve.”