Workforce

Engaging the Next Class: Making the Most of Utility Internships

Inspiring the next generation of talent to work in public power involves designing opportunities for individuals to learn what it means to work in the industry and showcasing the skills required for the jobs. From honing in on how to build interest in skilled trades to finding a way to match student interns’ skills with organizational needs, public power utilities are taking a creative approach to recruiting workforce newcomers.

Creating the Right Fit

For Mike Noreen, conservation & efficiency coordinator at River Falls Municipal Utilities in Wisconsin, finding and hiring interns requires flexibility on the part of both the utility and the prospective intern.

Noreen has mentored a number of interns at the small utility over the past few years. River Falls has offered paid internaships, thanks to financial support from the American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy and Efficiency Developments, or DEED, program. The interns River Falls hired have focused on a variety of projects, from energy efficiency programs to mapping and customer outreach.

Utilities almost always have staffing gaps, said Noreen. “The value goes beyond just engineering — there are places for a lot of different career paths and skill sets.”

He recommended identifying a need or skills gap within the utility and having that need be the start of a conversation about what the utility is looking for in an intern. Those interests or needs could be anything from understanding GIS software to graphic design, grant writing, or using social media, he said. “You might be surprised by asking throughout the utility what are ways people could help,” he said.

River Falls has developed a relationship with a local university that provides leads for interns each year, but utilities without a nearby higher education presence can find interns through other community networks, he said. Utilities can work with local schools and other organizations, even those seemingly unrelated to utility work, when looking for internship candidates, Noreen said. This word-of-mouth approach has worked well for River Falls.

Casting a net for interns in the community has worked well for River Falls. “Usually someone comes up with a perfect kid for the job,” he said. Conversations with prospective interns should revolve around how the utility can offer something tangible that aligns with a student’s interests. Part of the process is selling the idea of utility work to students. “People aren’t going into college saying they want to work for public power,” he said. “Keep it flexible for what they are going to be doing, while introducing public power as a career path.”

Students between their sophomore and senior years of college tend to need some direction on how they can apply what they are learning in school to a profession and how to grow as professionals, Noreen said.

“I want to give them opportunities to take on projects and give them a capstone project or two,” he said. He tries to form projects that allow interns to build confidence in researching a problem, working with a variety of staff, and conducting analyses or compiling reports. Essentially, projects that show them how they will need to work with others, explore alternatives to a problem, and learn how to take feedback and constructive criticism. Utilities should be open to flexible working arrangements, as interns likely cannot work 40 hours a week or be at a desk in the office to complete their work.

Hosting an intern requires a commitment from utility staff, but mentoring and managing interns can be rewarding for staff and the utility. “We’ve all had a lot of help in our lives and, at some point, it is our turn to offer help,” he said.

“You get out what you put into it,” said Noreen. “Don’t give them jobs that you just don’t want to do. Don’t give them something that will be ongoing for years, and you are only asking them to come in sometime in the middle.”

Noreen said public power opportunities can allow interns to be exposed to other aspects of city services and to network with people in other city departments. One River Falls intern learned more about job possibilities in the city’s wastewater system that aligned with her interest in conservation. Given public power’s community focus, this kind of exposure is helpful regardless of the intern’s later career path. Internship opportunities that show a viable pathway to a future career can be a way for young workers “to come to your small town — or prevent them from leaving it,” he said.

Outside of fulfilling skills gaps and workforce development, interns can be a valuable source of ideas and offer a new perspective on the utility.

“Some of these young people are so smart and think about things totally different than utilities,” he said. “We are a business that has not changed for a long, long time. Now we’re in a position of great change. Be open to what they’ve learned, the perceptions of what they have, and use those to your advantage or to know that’s a blind spot for you.”

Preparing Specialists

A little over five years ago, Kissimmee Utility Authority in Florida established the Reginald Hardee Electrical Lineworker Scholarship, which supports KUA internships for local graduating seniors who are interested in learning about electric lineworker careers. Interns in the program perform a variety of tasks, such as preparing pad sites, conduits, and related materials for installation, setting pad-mounted equipment, or supplying lineworkers with materials and tools while watching them perform a variety of duties. The linework interns have helped dig holes and trenches for installing poles and underground lines, checked the location of utility lines to ensure safe installation, and assisted in making terminations.

“Interns are often pleasantly surprised by the large amount of hands-on experience that they receive throughout the program,” said Brian Horton, KUA’s president and CEO. “Students who may not be interested in a traditional higher education model, such as attending a college or university, find the internship opportunity to be very attractive.”

KUA promotes the internship opportunity through a local education foundation and various local education enrichment groups. Preference is given to applicants with financial need.

In addition to providing local high school graduates the opportunity to have a paid internship, the program has helped KUA fill a gap in its pipeline of highly skilled trade professionals.

“A large portion of our workforce was aging out of the industry when the program began in 2017,” said Horton. “We were looking for highly trained and specialized workers to help fill the gap.”  Since the program’s inception, five interns have participated and two of those interns have gone on to become lineworkers.

Making Connections

While getting people interested in utility jobs is a goal of internships, showcasing the array of work and types of projects in public power should be part of the experience. That is the philosophy behind Energy Northwest’s program to support its member utilities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The joint action agency provides workshops, training, and other opportunities for interns at participating member utilities to learn about public power career opportunities, said Sarah Giomi, energy services specialist at Energy Northwest. Students work throughout the summer at one utility, where they have a mentor, but they participate in professional development training and activities with other interns. Students get to build connections with other utilities and share highlights of what they worked on with other students and staff of participating utilities.

Interns love having the opportunity to meet with other students, and learn how their projects tie into broader grid transformation efforts. They also like the value-added training and networking. “It creates a more diverse experience than the typical summer job,” Giomi said.

The training programs also teach interns about the public power segment of the electric utility industry. Energy Northwest partnered with the Northwest Public Power Association to offer the interns training about the public power model and how it affects operations.

“When we are in public power, we assume that everyone knows what it is,” said Giomi. But “giving them hands-on experience to show first-hand what public power is and to be able to be a part of it, they learn a lot about the utilities and want to come back.” Giomi said the opportunity to help member utilities that serve rural areas was a major impetus for creating the program. “People see opportunities and want to stay,” she said.

While staff at participating utilities handle day-to-day management of the interns and their utility-specific projects, Energy Northwest coordinates activities for the interns, including regular meetups (held virtually) and assists with recruitment and promotion of the internships. Promotional activities include attending career fairs, classroom visits, and meeting with extracurricular groups to talk about the internships and career paths in public power. These activities would be difficult or impossible for smaller and more remote utilities to do on their own, Giomi said. She also helps participating members with logistics, such as finding suitable summer housing for interns.

Giomi herself was an intern at Energy Northwest and she drew from her experience to shape a program that would resonate with students.

A big part of that experience is engaging them through various digital platforms, including social media, to strengthen connections among the interns and with mentors in the network. Giomi was an intern in 2019 and joined the Energy Northwest staff as a full-time employee in 2020.

The shift to more virtual learning and working due to the pandemic proved beneficial to the program design, as participating utilities were already using virtual training and networking sessions.

“We learned that we could serve more utilities and connect even more students,” said Giomi. The virtual format allowed for broader participation from across the region than would have occurred with in-person meetups.

Giomi hopes to expand the program to serve more students and more Energy Northwest members. As COVID-related restrictions are eased and people can resume larger in-person gatherings, the internship program will continue to rely on virtual sessions to allow for more interaction among participants across the region. Giomi hopes to hold in-person sessions to start and end each internship period.

Five interns, all with engineering backgrounds, participated in the program’s first year. They worked on projects ranging from working in hydroelectric facilities to broadband, solar, and data analysis. For summer 2022, the program has expanded to include seven utilities and 15 interns with a broader range of career goals, including business, marketing, IT, and safety.

All interns from the first year ended the program saying they wanted a career in public power.

APPA’s DEED program contributed funds to support the program.

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