Powering Strong Communities

Military Veterans and Utility Jobs

Wayne Young retired from the U.S Navy 15 years ago, but he’s never stopped looking out for his fellow veterans. Young is vice president of environmental services at JEA, the public power utility that serves Jacksonville, Florida. While the utility actively recruits personnel who are transitioning out of the military, Young tries to be a one-man recruiting service.

“I make it known that if you are serving now, I will do anything I can to assist you in your transition. Just let me know,” Young said. “It’s happened numerous times, that somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody, gives me a call and I welcome that.”

Young is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and spent 26 years in the Navy, retiring as a captain, before joining JEA in 2006. The Jacksonville area has the third largest military presence in the country and is home to two naval stations. The naval submarine base Kings Bay is just up Interstate 95 in nearby St. Mary’s, Georgia.

JEA recruits veterans by holding job fairs at military bases and has partnered with several veterans groups in the area to spread the word about job openings at the utility.

About 20% of JEA’s workforce is made up of veterans, said Charna Flennoy, manager of talent acquisition services at JEA.

Every year, approximately 200,000 men and women leave U.S. military service and return to life as civilians, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Since 2012, the Center for Energy Workforce Development has operated a program, Troops for Energy Jobs, to help veterans find work. The program serves 53 natural gas and electric utilities and 70 energy contractors and suppliers.

The United Service Organization, or USO, has two programs to help veterans transition to civilian work. The USO’s Project Next STEP and Pathfinder Transition program can also help veterans find work in public power.

In 2021, roughly 8% of the utility industry’s workforce was made up of veterans, compared to 5.3 percent of veterans in the general workforce population, according to the Center for Energy Workforce Development’s 2021 annual report.

But one of best ways to reach transitioning veterans is still word-of-mouth, Young said.

“We have job fairs and we put the word out in the veterans community that we’re hiring,” Young said. “You don’t cut the cord when you retire from the military, so word of mouth among the veterans community here is very important.”

Young’s first step in counseling veterans who are looking for civilian work is to help shape their resumes. “There’s a different jargon in the Navy and the military, period, and one of the biggest challenges for those transitioning is to translate that experience into something that can be interpreted by any industry,” Young said.

Young edits the resumes and sends retiring soldiers, sailors and airmen announcements for job openings. “It gives me tremendous pleasure,” Young said of his work with veterans.

Rich Wallen, general manager of Grant County Public Utility District in eastern Washington, enlisted in the Navy before graduating from Ripley High School in West Virginia in 1988. He served 10 years aboard the USS Enterprise as a nuclear machinist mate, before earning his bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University.

“I am instantly drawn to them,” Wallen said about veterans transitioning to civilian work. “I think about my younger self, and not having money to go to college right away. I always think, ‘I know your story,’ even though I don’t know you, but I have a pretty good idea of what you’ve gone through.”

He says public power can be a great fit for veterans transitioning to civilian life, because there’s a clear sense of “mission” in the work. “You’re there for your community, you’re there to help make things better and help people,” Wallen said. “You work so closely with the community that you naturally feel that sense of responsibility and commitment to the customer-owners — very much the same way you felt in the military.”

Garrett Clary, a former Army paratrooper, found a job in public power in 2021. He now works as an IT architecture analyst in cybersecurity operations with Energy Northwest, a joint action agency that serves 27 public utility districts and municipalities across Washington state. Roughly 30% of the 1,200 people who work at Energy Northwest are veterans.

Clary enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school. He spent seven and half years with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He spent 27 months, over two separate deployments, in Afghanistan. He was awarded an Army Commendation with Valor for his actions during a firefight in the infamous Korengal Valley in 2007, and a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan. He had planned to spend 20 years in the Army before injuries forced him to retire.

“To be honest, I didn’t start thinking about a job outside of the military until they told me I had to,” he said. Clary enrolled at Columbia Basin Community College in Pasco, Washington, in 2014 thinking he’d get a degree in business administration, because it would be “useful and general enough that I could get a job,” he said.

But a computer class started Clary thinking about a career, and not just a job. He earned a degree in cybersecurity in 2019 and found work as a contractor for Energy Northwest in 2020. In January 2021, he became a full-time employee at Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station, a 1,207-megawatt nuclear plant near Richland, Wash.

That course that changed Clary’s life was the first computer class he had ever taken.

“I would tell anyone getting out of the military to go beyond your comfort zone. You’re not sure what you’ll like and you probably don’t know what all you can do. I had never had a computer class — I didn’t join the military to sit behind a desk,” said the former paratrooper. “You have to listen and be open to new things, and not limit your options.”

From his first interview for the contractor position at Columbia Generating Station, Clary said he knew the organization was different. “I left feeling very encouraged. They were a really motivated group and seemed like people I could work with.”

He was attracted to cybersecurity initially, because he said he “understood the language of defend and protect” that drives the field. After several rocky years of transitioning to civilian life, Clary says he found a place with Energy Northwest.

“It’s not just the employees, but the culture and the work itself,” he said. “We are constantly striving to improve and do the right thing, and there’s a big emphasis on that. I had that perspective from my service, and it translates really well here. We’re all focused on the same goal, it’s a very similar atmosphere to the Army.”

Energy Northwest actively participates in the Troops to Energy Jobs Initiative, which is designed to establish and maintain outreach to groups and companies around the country to assist in recruiting veterans. The public power consortium also works with the Washington state veterans hiring initiative YesVets.

Wallen, the general manager at Grant PUD, said his utility has done some outreach with Joint Base Lewis McCord in Washington state and also worked through the Troops for Energy initiative, but he thinks the pool of transitioning veterans is a largely untapped resource for public power.

“I think we’re missing an opportunity to partner with all the service branches,” Wallen said. “Rural Washington is very much like rural West Virginia in that there aren’t that many opportunities for young people, so many leave high school and enlist. We need to let them know that when they come back to the area, the PUD has a range of opportunities for them.”

Wallen said “if he had the invitation,” he’d be at every base in the Northwest. “We should be selling our brand and helping them transition,” he said. “I think it would be a win for public power. We are mission-based organizations that serve our communities. Veterans understand that and we have opportunities for them."

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