Powering Strong Communities

Modernizing the Public Power Workforce

The challenge of meeting utility workforce needs is to re-shape our staffs to meet new technology requirements and new ways one public power has wrestled with for the last two decades. The baby boomer generation is well into retirement, a trend that will continue for another decade. Meanwhile, demands on the industry are changing. As local utilities maintain and rebuild electric distribution infrastructure, they are installing grids characterized by sophisticated electronics and a sturdy resilience better able to withstand harsh weather. The need to scale up intermittent renewable resources and enable electric vehicles also requires distribution equipment capable of handling generation and load at a more granular level.

The pandemic introduced new staffing challenges to an industry that simply cannot lock the doors and stop operating. Then came the Great Resignation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the trade, transportation and utilities sector of the economy has been second only to the leisure and hospitality sector in losing personnel to the Great Resignation.

Events of the past two years have magnified the challenge of renewing our workforce. We can think of the work done to meet the early years of baby boomer retirements as preparation for the 2022 requirements.

But the challenge presents an opportunity to re-shape our staffs to meet new technology requirements and new ways of doing business — the latter dramatically shaped by the pandemic. The lockdown imposed by COVID 19 on many office staff – whether for a shorter or longer duration — forced employers to continue delivering service without traveling each day to an office. That experience proved that some desk jobs can be handled as effectively from a desk at home as from a desk in a central office.

Several years ago, I asked one CEO of a small municipal electric utility how he was meeting the looming challenge of retiring baby boomers. His strategy: “I recognize that engineers want to be close to their mamas.” At the heart of his tongue-in-cheek solution was an approach every public power utility should embrace: think locally. He cultivated and maintained a close relationship with customers. College-bound kids knew that solid career opportunities awaited back home where they could reconnect with their families. As quaint as his response to workforce development seems, it speaks to key components of every utility’s needs. Your utility’s workforce needs to meet the needs and reflect the demographics of your community.

Public power utility partnerships with local colleges/trade schools are potentially one of the most effective strategies for developing your evolving workforce. As utility distribution systems become more sophisticated, it is incumbent on the utility to take steps to ensure that local educational curricula match evolving technical needs. The article in this issue, Nurturing the Roots, talks about EPRI’s GridEd program, which recognizes and addresses this need. Several public power utilities partici- pate in this program and the effort is a model and a resource for smaller communities.

These efforts should not stop with technical needs. In their efforts to address workforce needs, two utilities — Keys Energy Service in Florida and Paducah Power System in Kentucky — recognized that communication skills are a top priority. “Whether it’s interpersonal communications, written and verbal communications or just human interaction in general, the most common skill deficiency our organization sees comes down to soft skills,” said Julio Terrado of Keys Energy Services. For more on that, read the article on succession planning.

The continuing shift in how people are thinking about work – and what they want out of work — is an opportunity for us to think differently about our workforce and to shape organizations that appeal to and nurture our most important resource, our employees. Public power’s mission – providing reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity to our communities – cannot be overstated as a motivation for some employees and job seekers. Along with competitive wages and benefits, opportunities to learn and advance, and being treated with respect, this mission can provide public power utilities with a leg up in this challenging job market. Public power utility jobs offer exciting opportunities for the next generation of employees. It is up to us to be sure that newcomers to the workforce are aware of these opportunities and are prepared to help us move forward.

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