One of public power’s latent strengths is helping neighbors in their time of need. The industry’s national mutual aid program has shown repeatedly how working together in an emergency gets the lights back on quickly. That “neighbors helping neighbors” arrangement has been used successfully to bolster utility workforces too. Public power’s joint action agencies operate a variety of shared workforce programs to help small utilities meet hiring and retention challenges.
Beyond Mutual Aid Agreements
The Missouri Public Utility Alliance uses the mutual aid construct to connect cities facing staffing shortages. The organization’s members include municipally owned electric, natural gas, water, wastewater and broadband utilities.
A long history with mutual aid agreements makes it easier for member cities to work together to meet a wide range of services, said Connie Ford, MPUA’s chief member services officer. “Our role is helping to connect cities facing staffing shortages, which really takes mutual aid to the next step,” whether temporarily for cities waiting to hire staff or a separate agreement to address an ongoing need. “Short-term, we can pull together resources for members to fill vacancies or identify cities that might be
able to help. Longer-term, we will need a multi-pronged approach such as recruitment assistance, advanced utility training, succession planning, or more cooperative service agreements with our staff or outside contractors,” she said.
Addressing Skilled Trades Shortages
Lineworkers continue to be in high demand but short supply. Retention issues led MPUA to stand-up its own electric line services crew to help cities that need project assistance or to handle all operations. A two-person crew will start this summer and a four-person crew will start next year. The effort is likely to grow because more member utilities have expressed interest in the service, Ford said.
Skilled trades training continues to be a high priority. MPUA’s lineworker apprentice program had record-high enrollment this year. MPUA has expanded the training to address needs for water, wastewater, and natural gas training. To ensure that training can continue year-round — through very cold Midwest winters — MPUA built an indoor training center. “People can even dig in the dirt and instructors can watch work on poles from a perimeter catwalk,” Ford said.
Workforce issues have been a top challenge for members of South Dakota-based Missouri River Energy Services for many years. More than
20 years ago, several smaller MRES-member utilities struggled to retain lineworkers when neighboring investor-owned and rural electric utilities enticed them away with higher wages. In response, MRES developed a distribution maintenance program to fill member staffing needs and to maintain reliability on local electric distribution systems. Crew personnel work for MRES, but the public power utility owns the equipment and stays engaged by directing work plans.
That program has expanded in recent years to meet additional member utility needs. MRES now provides a variety of supplemental services, which include:
- On-call and stand-by services
- Management services to support system planning, budgeting, reporting, purchasing, etc.
- System assessments and recommendations for needed improvements
- Project-specific services, such as service extensions or replacement of aging infrastructure
“For many years, Barnesville contracted with a neighboring investor-owned utility for distribution maintenance services,” said Guy Swenson, manager of the telephone, electric and cable utility in Barnesville, Minn. “But they only provided us with bare minimum service. There was no help in determining what maintenance work needed to be done, no recommendations for improvements, and we were very low on their priority list for doing system upgrades.”
“When we started using the MRES distribution service, it was like night and day,” Swenson said. “The MRES crew assessed our system, identified the problems, and laid out a plan and budget to bring our system back to where it needed to be. I sleep better at night now.”
MRES now provides full-time distribution maintenance services to six member utilities and one associate member, and supplemental services to 13 members and one associate. “Most of the requests for supplemental services have come to us in the past three years,” said Terry Wolf, vice president of power supply and operations for MRES. “It is getting harder all the time for small communities to attract and retain workers. The supplemental service agreements have helped fill the gap created when long-time employees depart by providing needed expertise from experienced distribution maintenance staff. MRES will do everything we can to support our members and help them be successful in providing reliable and affordable electric service.”
Leveraging Shared Learning
Succession planning and shared learning efforts are ripe strategic planning areas for joint action agencies. In Missouri, MPUA is developing a succession planning process to share with members. “We have so many dedicated, long-term employees leaving, and we need a way to capture information from these human databases before they retire,” Ford said. It is especially hard for small utilities when that one person retires who knows everyone and where everything is — but it’s all in their head. Ford said the process will address the need to recruit new staff well beforehand, given how challenging it could be to backfill government positions.
Kansas Municipal Energy Agency has led development of shared services efforts to help staff across its 80 member utilities. In July 2020, after months of due diligence through the onset of the pandemic, KMEA’s board of directors voted to acquire a small engineering construction company, Mid-States Energy Works, based in Salina, Kansas. KMEA General Manager Paul Mahlberg knew member cities needed lineworkers, engineering services, and financial forecasting for rates. “We started to ask ourselves how we could provide these services when we have members who either couldn’t afford it or didn’t have enough resources to do it,” Mahlberg said.
The KMEA/Mid-States engineering construction company has grown by one-third in just two years. “Now we have 12 people, including engineers, a former lineworker, operational experts, and people who can design and construct substations and transmission lines. The biggest challenge is successfully managing all the work from our members,” Mahlberg said. In addition, an agency staff member works on financial forecasting and rates.
Helping Smaller Utilities Succeed
KMEA also heard about the need for lineworkers from one of its smallest and most isolated public power utilities, in Dighton, Kansas. Dighton officials turned to the joint action agency for help, said Gerry Bieker, KMEA’s operations manager. The agency placed a two-person line crew in Dighton in 2020. “It was in line with what we were already doing with KMEA/Mid-States and it has been really successful; they’re extremely happy,” Bieker said. KMEA plans to expand the number of crews to cover a broader regional need.
Tyson McGreer, KMEA’s manager of member services, acknowledged that smaller cities are especially vulnerable when talent leaves. “Some are rotating through people faster than ever. It adds complexity to managing departments that are already under budgetary constraints and multiple resource demands, so we try to help them better understand what it takes to safely run and maintain a municipal utility,” he said. Needs may continue to grow as longtime employees retire, Mahlberg said. “They’re lucky if someone can shadow them for a while — but I also know we have the talent here to help them if we can build that trust.”
KMEA is examining how to share resources to address ongoing supply chain constraints. “We have been discussing the idea of building a centrally located warehouse with shared inventory across our 80 members,” Mahlberg said. “That way we can leverage bigger purchasing power by buying transformers, poles, conductors — whatever those pain points are — in bulk.”
Missouri River Energy Services has developed a suite of workforce resources to help its members succeed and adapt to future industry changes. Tammie Krumm, vice president of human resources and administration, created several new HR initiatives shortly after she joined MRES in 2017. She quickly realized that the policies, procedures, and templates developed for MRES could be valuable for member utilities, to assist them with recruitment, succession planning, and employee development efforts.
Succession planning is critical to avoiding extended and costly vacancies and assuring the stability of business operations. MRES succession planning resources include:
- Mapping when employees are likely to retire
- Evaluating strengths, weaknesses and readiness for succession
- Planning for individual development to make an employee promotable
- Identifying legal and diversity issues
- Identifying emergency positions without successors
- Planning for positions that cannot be filled internally
In addition, MRES provides recruitment templates and invites members to advertise job openings on the MRES website. “We are all in this together, so let’s share our pool of candidates and recruiting resources,” Krumm said. Working together, MRES and its members can keep qualified lineworkers in the MRES family versus the alternative of losing critical personnel. Krumm keeps a database of candidates and refers lineworker applicants to all member utilities when they have openings.
“Employees are a utility’s greatest asset,” Krumm said. “Most positions can be replaced from within if the utility takes the time to prepare, train and thoughtfully promote existing employees and MRES is here to help them through the process. We all need to grow our staff and build our bench, but we have better results if we do it together.”