Public power officials detail employee retention strategies

There are a number of strategies that public power utilities can deploy to retain employees and, in particular, lineworkers, public power officials recently said at the American Public Power Association’s Engineering and Operations Technical Conference in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Among other things, they emphasized the importance of public power utility leaders regularly engaging with their workers, whether that involves having a casual conversation over a cup of coffee or making a site visit simply to let workers know that they are valued members of the team.

Participants in the session, “The Train Reaction: How to Keep Your Employees,” were Troy Adams, P.E., General Manager, Elk River Municipal Utilities, Minn.; Olin Clawson, General Manager and CEO, Lawrenceburg Municipal Utilities, Indiana; and Aaron Haderle, Manager of T&D Operations, Kissimmee Utility Authority, Florida.

Public power utilities spend significant money and resources on employee training, but face retention challenges given that investor-owned utilities and cooperatives can oftentimes offer higher salaries to lineworkers.

At the same time, public power utilities understand that safety is paramount, which means that lineworker training must occur, irrespective of whether that training may increase the odds of an employee departing at a later date.

Clawson noted that public power utility linemen “take pride in what they do, they take pride in the fact that they provide services to the community.”

He also said that the Association’s annual Public Power Lineworkers Rodeo is beneficial because it gives lineworkers the opportunity to meet lineworkers from other utilities and build relationships that can be helpful in situations like mutual aid events.

“So bringing my guys out and taking the time to budget for them to do those kinds of things – those are things that are important to keeping a lineman at a utility,” he added.

“All things being equal or close to equal, the things that are going to keep your guys at your utility are knowing that they’re relevant, knowing that they are appreciated,” and knowing that they have the opportunity to participate in the Association’s rodeo.

And he also noted that participation in the rodeo offers benefits beyond the social connection element. “There’s data that shows that since APPA started hosting the rodeo, that it’s improved the safety. There’s a lot of value because when linemen get together” and compare notes and watch what others are doing, it raises “the quality of your employees and we see that in evidence in the quality of the journeymen that we have.”

The E&O conference took place after the conclusion of the Association’s annual Public Power Lineworkers Rodeo, which was held from March 29-30, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Taking time to connect with employees

“It’s probably reasonable to assume that most of us that are general managers” have plenty of work to keep them busy, Clawson said. Time is what he most values. “So to take some of that time and to allot it to my guys, they understand and appreciate that effort.”

Clawson, who noted that he rode out with lineworkers from Lawrenceburg Municipal Utilities to the rodeo, said that “you need to be relatable to your guys. I came up through the trades. I’m a journeyman-lineman, so I like being with the guys. I like being out in the field working with them, seeing what they’re doing, checking on them. I sincerely appreciate them, so I try to let them know that.”

Clawson said riding out with his crew to the rodeo “is something that has value and you can’t underestimate that.”

He also said that “a lot of the young people, especially, they want to take pride in what they do. They want to work for a company that has a great reputation. That’s important to them.”

Clawson said the public power utilities should “try to create an atmosphere that your employees can be proud of – and that’s safety, that’s reputation, it’s reliability, it’s all those kinds of things.” Public power utilities need to “tell that story.”

He said that there is no silver bullet when it comes to employee retention. “It’s going to have to be a little bit of everything,” including, among other things, senior management engaging with workers. “It’s tough to get good talent in the first place and keeping them is just a tricky thing and we need to have several options available to us to do that.”

Training is not just for safety, but also for developing leaders, Adams says

Elk River’s Adams noted that his public power utility is surrounded by two cooperatives and an investor-owned utility “and they take our linemen.”

“Everyone can understand that we need to train people. You need to have them equipped with the knowledge to be safe,” he said.

Adams underscored the point that training workers is not just a safety issue, but also a “future of public power thing.”

Public power utilities need to look at employee retention as a key strategy in terms of grooming leaders, he said.

“It’s one thing to do a task. It’s another thing to lead. And leadership is not just the GM or the CEO. Leadership runs all the way down through the company,” Adams noted. “If you can’t train your employees so that they can rise up and become leaders, you put public power at risk.”

He noted that Elk River brought in a consultant to review topics such as what it means to be a leader and working as a team.

Recognizing that these challenges were not limited to Elk River, “we worked with our state association to develop a leadership academy,” he said.

“We went literally to the four corners of the state and talked to current and past leadership and said, knowing what it’s like now, what are you glad you knew when you took over in your leadership role, what do you wish you would have known or what skills do you wish you would have had.”

What resulted is an eight session, two-year leadership academy, which is now in its third year.

“The hope is that those people that are going through that program are going to be equipped to take over the utilities that they come from as their current managers retire,” Adams noted.

Meanwhile, Adams agreed with Clawson’s point that worker engagement is key. “I go down and have coffee with the linemen every day. We talk hockey and football, and whatever else,” Adams said. “When something comes up they’re not afraid to say something to me. It’s just an opportunity to show a respect to the employees that I care about them. It’s a few minutes out of my morning but it goes a long way.”

Echoing Clawson’s comments, Adams said that the Association’s Lineworkers Rodeo is another way to connect with lineworkers and boost morale. “The guys that we had here” for the competition texted him afterwards “thanking me for the opportunity to come out here and compete because it meant a lot them.” His response? “No, thank you for taking the time to train and come here.”

So those lineworkers “are going to go home and they’re going to talk about it and they’re going to be excited for next year,” he said. “Our neighboring co-ops – they don’t offer anything like this, so this is one of those things where we know it costs some money, but the value greatly outweighs what the costs are to be able to have our linemen participate in a program like this.”

Employees sometimes leave for reasons other than money

KUA’s Haderle said that “at the end of the day, if anyone checks the grass on the other side to see if it’s greener, they’re going to do that.”

He said that “sometimes it’s money that really pushes that,” but not always, pointing to KUA as an example. Haderle noted that some KUA workers have departed the utility “just because they didn’t want to be in the area.”

He noted that “our growth is two and a half to three percent a year, but we’re in a small area. We’re in about a hundred square miles.” The area is “really tight and congested,” which has spurred some KUA workers to depart for rural areas.