Powering Strong Communities

Empowering Tomorrow's Workforce

There are few challenges facing the energy industry today more acute and pressing than workforce development. Ongoing retirements from the baby boomer generation, sped up retirements from Gen Xers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and other employees leaving as part of the Great Resignation compound the need to bring in and cultivate new workers.

These new workers aren’t needed simply to fill in the shoes of those who left, but to provide new skill sets that include understanding and using the technologies that are cornerstones of the future electric utility. This is an even greater priority than the ones faced by previous eras of utility managers.

To face these challenges, many utilities have formed partnerships with external organizations with the shared goal of developing a robust workforce pipeline. These partnerships can come in many forms, beginning at the K–12 level, moving on to postsecondary and skills education, and into the early-career positioning of new hires. Two public power utilities are taking this on through multiple strong partnerships that reflect their interest in strengthening their workforce while building a deeper connection with their communities.

Planting the Seeds

The Omaha Public Power District in Nebraska has emphasized electricity education in the classroom through the Energy Education Program. OPPD partnered with the National Energy Education Development, or NEED, Project to create STEM-based curriculum for teachers to use to convey energy subjects for students from elementary to high school. This involves a two-prong approach, with instruction offered for both students and for the teachers.

On the student side, OPPD Energy Consultant Eric BenSalah teaches four different classes: solar energy, wind energy, energy efficiency and conservation, and energy source exploration. Each one comes with hands-on exercises that help students learn the science and engineering fundamentals behind energy, with activities tailored to the age of the students. In these classes, students create working projects such as a solar oven, an operational windmill, and mini energy-efficient homes that are tested under heat lamps. For energy source exploration, which pulls together all the various forms of energy generation, students are given a couple weeks after the class to construct dioramas about their chosen energy source and present them in an energy expo for fellow students and BenSalah.

The offering goes beyond just the delivery of a curriculum by including workshops and trainings with area teachers where OPPD staff bring in a retired teacher to go through best practices and proven pedagogic approaches to help students understand the course material.

The program started with a pitch by BenSalah in 2019 to create an energy efficiency education program. He quickly discovered both the need for more extensive resources to cover some opportunities in the curriculum and specific items teachers were vocal about needing help in developing.

“I approached them with some of the normal things you see in this type of course, where it’s essentially a course in a box, and they came back to me saying, ‘That’s fine, but don’t do that. We might do that once, but we’ll then never do it again afterward,’” said BenSalah. “They told me what they needed was help more than anything; that they needed to not have a basic activity but wanted to understand for themselves the changes in the science standards and what is being taught in this course.”

BenSalah met with five different school districts in OPPD’s territory and collected information on their needs and interests. This led him to weigh the pros and cons of various partners, finding NEED had the greatest coverage and best model in its existing curriculum that matched the teachers’ interest.

“NEED did a lot of research on their end to make sure what they were building fit exactly to the Nebraska state standards for science while creating something that fit into how the district’s teachers were approaching those standards without creating new added burdens,” he said.

Although NEED had originally planned to teach the courses, BenSalah recognized that there was a cost-saving and trust-building opportunity to be had by letting OPPD take a front seat in this partnership. He now teaches all of the classes in the program for students, taking the name “Mr. E,” which he says students often guess means “Mr. Energy” or “Mr. Electricity.”

“I wanted OPPD in the classroom, not just a sticker on a box,” he said. “Now they see me in this orange jacket and bow tie as a representative of OPPD, understand who we are and what we do.”

He said this pays short- and long-term dividends for OPPD, with students becoming employees and customers of the district. “We’re kind of playing the long game here, reaching all these students now for all the ways they will be involved with OPPD in the future while also building trust with the parents right now, who recognize that their children have had positive educational experiences with OPPD. There are a lot of little qualitative tentacles that this program touches.”

Though the program builds foundational knowledge of the operations and technologies in a utility job, there is a separate presentation focused specifically on electric utility employment that can be added to the courses upon request.

Whether appended to the existing courses or added as a separate class, BenSalah said he focuses in on an overview of OPPD specifically, then his group’s work before expanding to talk broadly about all the different types of careers in the industry and the further education that is required for them, connecting it to some of what the students have already learned about in the previous courses.

“And then, importantly, I turn to telling them about my journey,” he added. “I came in from learning a trade — heating and air conditioning — rather than graduating from college, so they have something to attach to these jobs and understand how, while there are paths focused on degree programs, there are also paths based on experience and learning a trade.”

Even if students don’t come away from the program looking at a future working for the public power utility, BenSalah has found that many still come away as advocates for the public power business model after hearing about how OPPD and others connect with their employees and their communities.

“When I talk about OPPD being a public power company, and the special role public power plays across Nebraska, as a state entirely operated by public power, they get excited about how special that is and the positive things about having a public power company,” he said. “They’ve outright said to me, ‘That’s really cool — and much better than a big corporation.’

“This feedback shows that what we are saying and what they are learning is aligning with how OPPD can connect with its community, including those still in school.”

Creating Options

At Lafayette Utilities System in Louisiana, that connection is being nurtured through partnerships that look at the period between graduation and joining the utility. According to Greg Labbé, LUS electric operations manager, this initiative came partially out of a love for local coordination, but also out of necessity.

“About five years ago, we were in need of linemen to fill jobs, not just for us, but for everyone in the area,” Labbé said. “We met with CLECO (an IOU) and SLEMCO (a co-op) and approached South Louisiana Community College about how we might be able to create a linemen school.”

“As a partnership, we all worked through all the steps such as setting up the school, getting it certified, and bringing awareness to its offerings. That gives us the needed funnel for linemen that we really needed. We’ve gone from being in an extremely difficult situation to now being in a place where, when a lineman retires or moves on to another job, we can quickly bring in an apprentice to fill that gap.”

Since the creation of the school, Labbé estimates that LUS has hired 10 to 15 lineworkers straight out of the program, including all apprentices hired since it started.

Even when reaching out to do career days at the high schools, like it has long done, LUS still partners with SLCC to make sure that this career opportunity is brought front and center to prospective employees looking at their options out of high school.

“We’re able to make it clear that we’re not looking to recruit out of high school — that there’s this great school through SLCC that channels them to us after they learn the job rather than having to learn everything on the job here.”

“So, when they get here, they have the right level of experience and they know the job they’re getting into,” he added. “And since our crews are often the ones working with them in the classroom and doing instructional activities like underground terminations and installing transformers, there’s already a relationship between these incoming apprentices and the crews.”

“No longer do I have to worry about bringing in a recent high school graduate, getting them set up in the apprentice program, training them, only to one day have them decide that this isn’t the right job for them,” he said. “By the time they leave SLCC, they know that this is what they want to do, and, importantly, they know how to do that job well.”

The SLCC partnership has moved beyond lineworkers to include the hiring of recent SLCC graduates for meter technicians, substation workers, and communications staff. “This connection has been big for our electric operations,” added Labbé.

LUS’ partnership with postsecondary education also extends to the local university, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In previous years, LUS has partnered with the university on student solar projects, including sending teams to compete in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. LUS has also relied on the engineering program at UL to bring in interns, many of whom have continued as full-time employees.

There have also been initial discussions with UL about bringing in some LUS staff members to teach in the engineering program, though they are still working out the specifics on how that might work.

“Doing my job would be extremely difficult without all these partnerships,” Labbé said. “I’d never want to go back to how it was when we were trying to do all this alone.”

“And we’re proud to have one of the top-performing schools in our state, with kids coming from all areas of the state just to come to our schools and then getting jobs. We can’t hire them all, CLECO can’t hire them all, SLEMCO can’t hire them all, but we have found jobs for every single one of the graduates so far. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

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