Recruit local: The next generation in the utility workforce

Many utilities are faced with an aging workforce that is beginning to retire — taking decades of institutional knowledge with it. The problem is even more acute for small utilities that serve fewer than 5,000 customers and operate with a small number of employees.

Smaller utilities feel an outsized impact when someone leaves, as each employee often fills multiple roles in the utility.

To prepare for the future, some utilities are trying innovative measures to recruit and retain the next generation of workers — taking advantage of the unique aspects of their location, size and culture to do so.

Attracting local talent

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, it was cool to work for the power utility — those were often the most stable, best jobs in town — so the pool to draw from was larger,” said Carol Brehm from Nebraska Municipal Power Pool, which represents more than 60 small to midsize utilities. “Now, kids go off to college, [and] there’s not a lot to bring them back to rural communities.”

Part of the challenge in recruiting the younger generation is its lack of awareness about electric utility opportunities, according to Danette Scudder, executive vice president, member services and strategic relations at the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association.

For the past 30 years, our education system has focused on a minimum four-year degree instead of more hands-on skills, like line work, that may not require as much time in a formal, higher education setting,” she explained. “To counter, many smaller utilities have undertaken campaigns to get into the local school system or regional community colleges, to make local students aware that there are stable, well-paying (at least within the small community) careers in the electric utility industry, if they want to stay in the area.”

The city of Pierce, Nebraska, has a symbiotic understanding with nearby Northeast Community College’s two-year lineman degree program. Rich Eymann, electric superintendent in Pierce, recalled how he turned to the college program to help rebuild a line, which helped introduce the students to the public power utility and give them a sense of the work it does. In turn, instructors in the program keep a lookout for promising local students that can join the utility as apprentices or interns.

“I go with hometown kids who don’t want to go anywhere because they’re going to stick around, they’re not going to look outside of the rural area,” explained Eymann. “And we do pay pretty good for it being a small town.”

Appealing to the next generation

Millennials are on track to make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2020 and 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. Close behind them, members of Generation Z are starting to graduate from college and are joining the workforce.

Just as workers belonging to the baby boomer generation helped to shape the current culture and values of what is now perceived as the traditional utility, the emerging workforce can help shape the culture of the utility of the future.

Small public power utilities can offer an environment that resonates well with the values of some members of the emerging workforce. For example, workers might be eager for careers that offer opportunities to grow and be challenged; they might want flexibility with scheduling and work location; they might look to be involved in strategy, not just told what to do; and they might want to do work that is socially conscious or that allows them to give back to their community.

This last trait in particular presents an opportunity for public power utilities to shine. “There’s no better definition of an entity that’s about giving back to the community than a public power utility,” said Scudder. But historically, public power utilities haven’t focused on self-promotion or made a concerted effort to highlight our fundamental value to the community, so most customers don’t think about a lineworker as a type of first responder, which they are.

The remote location of many small utilities, usually thought of as a hindrance in attracting talent, can be an advantage, as Tennessee’s Erwin Utilities discovered.

“We’re settled in the mountains, the Appalachian Trail runs right through the town, there’s a lot of culture here, and one thing we joke about is that ‘no one around here plays golf because everybody is too busy hiking and camping,’” shared Lee Brown, general manager at Erwin Utilities. This has proved useful as it attracts younger, non-local talent. “Millennials want to move for that authentic feel, and that’s something that we can offer here.” Erwin modified its policies to provide flexible paid time off and ensure a better work-life balance for employees.

A larger culture shift might be required to attract millennials and members of Gen Z, one that smaller utilities have been slower to adopt.

“To some extent, there’s still a more top-down, traditional mindset in the dynamics between manager and employee, rather than being team-centric,” explained Scudder. “The younger generation wants to feel like they’re seeing the bigger picture and contributing to the decision-making process, regardless of whether they’ve been there five months, five years or 15 [years].”

Much of the focus right now, across the industry and within smaller utilities, is on utilities reinventing themselves through the way they engage with technology and their customers. Managing the workforce is an important part of that endeavor.

“You can’t engage with customers and keep up with technology if you don’t have a stable and well-prepared workforce. Internal processes, practices and perspectives need to be given equal attention,” said Scudder. “If you take care of your workforce and have the right people on your team, then it’s going to be easier for you to adapt to the changing external environment.”

Paying competitively, allowing for growth

Retaining talent can be a challenge for small utilities. Experienced linemen especially, explained Scudder, get hired away by bigger utilities that pay more or provide better growth opportunities.

Smaller utilities can be hampered by their revenues, as they serve a smaller customer base with limited opportunity to bring in new customers and businesses. “Sometimes that means having a hard conversation with your board,” urged Scudder, because the constant cycle of hiring, training and losing lineworkers is expensive.

A high turnover rate means having to devote already scarce resources to repeatedly training apprentices, not to mention dealing with the safety implications and related insurance implications. “One of our smaller utilities realized that if they took the money they were losing in retraining apprentices and used it to increase linemen’s minimum salaries, they would be more likely to retain them,” explained Scudder.

Lack of career advancement opportunities is another reason smaller utilities lose experienced people. “In a small utility with one line crew of four guys, there are limited growth opportunities unless they want to get out of line work,” said Scudder. “If you’re at a larger utility, then there’s a higher, longer chain for you to climb.”

Some utilities are solving this problem by identifying different ways for their employees to find personal and professional growth. They are encouraging staff to cross-train, engage in community organizations and decision-making, to broaden their horizons outside their job descriptions, and become cross-functional, explained Scudder. “The younger generation sees this as an investment in them, and that makes them more committed to the organization, rather than if they felt like an expendable cog in the wheel.”

Focusing on excellence

Erwin Utilities, which experienced several retirements over the last eight years but is now settled down concerning turnover, turned the talent challenge into an opportunity to attract new and more-skilled employees. How? By focusing on improving themselves.

“We engaged in the Baldrige Excellence Framework, through the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence, to try to move our 70-year-old processes into something more defined, with technology and automation,” explained Brown. Through the exercise, the utility examined its strategy, leadership, customers, workforce, data management and processes, identifying gaps and ways to work on continually improving.

Becoming a better organization makes the utility more attractive to job seekers. “Let’s say you’re a top person at your retail job, and you’ve got two opportunities — one with Walmart and one with Kmart,” said Brown. “As a top guy, you’re going to pick Walmart because they’re doing well, they’re growing, they’re getting better. So, as we’re preparing ourselves for the future and improving, that getting awards, that in itself attracts people.”

Focusing on excellence has also helped Erwin Utilities gain efficiency and do more with a same-sized workforce. “To employees, both existing and potential, this demonstrates that, despite their size, Erwin Utilities is going to be pushing the envelope and always looking for ways to do things better,” said Scudder. “It’s a rare exception that someone doesn’t want to be a part of such an environment.”

Sharing workers

In the face of a workforce shortage, some small utilities are banding together to share employees (and inventory and equipment) and continue to serve their communities while keeping costs low. The cities of Pierce and Battle Creek in Nebraska are two such examples. “Both lie outside Norfolk, as bedroom communities of people that live there but work elsewhere, and we’re both about the same size, serving about 500 meters,” said Eymann, who is in discussion with the Battle Creek community about ways the two communities might work out governance and cost-sharing for the labor force.

Missouri River Energy Services’ Distribution Maintenance Program is a similar workforce- and equipment-sharing initiative that has been running since 1997 to help smaller utilities that have always had it tougher.

“We started the program because some of the smaller MRES members were having trouble competing with nearby larger utilities in attracting and retaining lineworkers,” recounted Joni Livingston, director of member services and communications at MRES. It now provides full distribution services to five members. “We have one distribution system superintendent, for example, that oversees all five of the full-time program members, instead of each of them having to hire a line superintendent. Also, they can keep their staff to a minimum because they know they have support from the other communities, in case of an outage or a special project.”

The program is designed such that the labor force comes under MRES but member utilities retain ownership of the equipment, to ensure that the utilities can leave the program, if they want, without incurring a huge capital cost.

Interest in the program has spiked in the last few years, prompting MRES to offer different levels of service, from sporadic on-call and standby assistance to temporary help with a one-off project, in addition to management services. “Any group of utilities could get together, develop an arrangement, figure out insurance, liability and that sort of thing, and have a contract that spells out all the duties,” said Livingston. “We would be willing to share our template with anyone who’s interested.”