Test driving utility careers: Higher ed is a powerful partner

With the deployment of advanced technology across the electric utility industry, the demand for people with higher technical skills is increasing. The workforce continues to age, compounding the need for utilities to find new employees. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that between 2014 and 2024, the number of lineworker positions will grow 11 percent, which is almost twice as fast as the anticipated overall job growth.

To attract new talent and fill in skills gaps for the utility of the future, public power utilities are working with community colleges, universities, and other higher education institutions.

The long arc of workforce development begins by sparking interest in energy careers. Together, ElectriCities of North Carolina and North Carolina Public Schools, with funding from the American Public Power Association’s DEED research and development program, will deliver workshops for teenagers and young adults in North Carolina public power communities. The workshops will offer information about the energy industry, available careers, and educational resources to prepare students for specific jobs.

The hope is that young adults will recognize the opportunities in the electric industry, especially in an area that has seen a reduction in employment opportunities in other industries. The workshops are intended to make the education and training required to pursue these jobs more accessible and relevant. To encourage participation among diverse populations, the workshops are targeted to be held in areas that are underserved by the community college system and have higher unemployment rates.

The partnership is a good fit for both ElectriCities and North Carolina Public Schools and is seen as beneficial to the community overall. Individuals learn about job opportunities, schools raise awareness of their offerings and better align their curricula with industry needs, utilities have a broader talent pool to choose from, and communities see unemployment go down.

For the industry as a whole, the Center for Energy Workforce Development has developed relationships with more than 200 schools to create its National Energy Education Network. The network pairs institutions with electric utilities to create educational opportunities — including stackable credentials, competency-based curriculum, industry-recognized credentials, and assessments — to prepare people for utility jobs.

The Pacific Northwest Center of Excellence for Clean Energy at Centralia College is one of 10 centers in the state of Washington that offers industry-specific workforce development opportunities. The center works with the state’s community college system to offer more than 20 energy sector programs that teach students about power generation, transmission, and distribution programs and technological advances in areas such as smart grid, solar, energy efficiency, and hydro and wind energy.

To ensure that the training and curriculum options remain in line with industry needs, the center created the Power Utility Training Consortium, which brings together representatives from utilities throughout the Northwest. The consortium’s programming has also helped utilities, including Lewis County Public Utility District and Tacoma Power, find new talent for jobs and internships.

At the Northwest Water and Energy Education Institute at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, a new initiative is experimenting with energy workforce development collaborations beyond the college’s service area. The community college has long offered a two-year energy management technician program, which includes curriculum and a mentoring component in collaboration with the area’s five utilities, including the Eugene Board of Water and Light. Through a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the college plans to extend the program to an online degree that preserves the real-world field projects and cultivates employment opportunities with the energy sector.

The fieldwork mentoring can be as simple as walking a student through a checklist, said Roger Ebbage, energy/water education programs coordinator at Lane Community College. Ebbage noted that, in part thanks to a partnership with the Northwest Public Power Association, at least 10 utilities in the Pacific Northwest have already showed support for the program. Ebbage noted that utilities see benefit to the mentoring component “because they get to test drive a student’s ability without any commitment.” The mentoring may turn into a subsequent internship, or even employment, if mentees show they have the skills and knowledge to work in the industry.

Building partnerships with utilities outside the area allows people from rural or underserved communities to take the online program and gain real-world skills without leaving home. The community college’s initiative is starting in the Pacific Northwest and has secured support from utility mentors and regional institutions. Ebbage said that the school hopes to eventually offer the program to anyone, especially in rural communities, nationwide.

Beyond workforce development, higher education institutions can also provide resources and staff to carry out research and development programs related to utility operations. For example, Iowa State University partnered with Algona Municipal Utilities to analyze customer load based on advanced metering infrastructure data. Through funding from the Association’s DEED program, researchers at Iowa State will cull through Algona’s data to identify customer load patterns and any causes of changes in energy consumption. The university aims to develop a software tool that will enable smaller public power utilities to more easily analyze and use AMI data to understand and adjust customer energy use. Read more about the project.

There are many exciting partnerships between public power and higher education institutions. I invite you to share your experiences, and consider how a DEED scholarship or research grant can help form or strengthen a higher education partnership in your area.