Energy industry grapples with graying workforce

Work force development is a high priority for the electric energy industry and it is “something that we work at everyday,” according to Edison Electric Institute CAO Mary Miller.

According to the “2011 Gaps in the Energy Workforce Pipeline Survey” compiled by the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD), a non-profit consortium of electric, natural gas and nuclear utilities and their associations – Edison Electric Institute, American Gas Association, Nuclear Energy Institute and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association – the size of the industry workforce has decreased by a little more than 11,000 jobs since 2009.

The average age of the workforce has increased to 46.1, while the number of employees age 53 and above has increased by 5% since 2006. Also, the number of employees with more than 30 years of service has increased by 5.2% since 2006.

Over the next decade, CEWD added, nearly 62% of the industry has the potential to retire or leave for other reasons. For those positions considered critical by the industry, skilled utility technician and engineering – excluding positions in nuclear – the analysis shows that by 2015, 36% may need to be replaced due to potential retirement or attrition, with an additional 16% to be replaced by 2020 – almost 110,000 employees in positions identified as the most critical by industry.

The survey also showed that, excluding positions in nuclear, the changes in key occupations between 2009 and 2011 reflected that the number of engineers increased by nearly 3.6%; lineworkers decreased by 0.5%; transmission and distribution technicians decreased by 1.1%; and plant operators decreased by 5.6%.

“The workforce continues to mature – [t]he average age of the electric and natural gas utility workforce has increased from 45.7 in 2006 to 46.1 in 2010,” CEWD added. “Comparisons by age groupings show that the number of employees between the ages of 18-27 has decreased while the number of employees age 53 and above has increased, reflecting both the number of [mid-career] hires and the number of employees who are waiting to retire.”

The retirement levels in the industry and the need to reach out to potential new workers is “exactly the reason why we established the Center for Energy Workforce Development in 2006,” Miller told TransmissionHub.

Many of the jobs in the sector are highly skilled trade jobs, and “are not jobs that you can just walk into after high school, so there’s a longer lead time with many of those jobs,” she said, adding that “there is definitely a focus on making sure that there are outreach and training efforts so that we do have the skilled workforce as folks retire.”

While the economy over the last few years has slowed retirement patterns, “it’s still very much an issue for us,” she said.

Making matters more difficult, the current interest rate environment has affected any company that offers a defined benefits plan. “Our companies are no different than others who are struggling with the impact of the lower interest rates and how that impacts how you have to quantify your liability,” she added.

“One of the values of EEI is that it gives our members an opportunity and a forum to share best practices, so when you have a company that has put in a program that has been effective in retaining these highly skilled line workers, our industry is very receptive to sharing those best practices,” Miller said.

For example, some of EEI member companies have given their longer- tenured people the opportunity to be involved in training and mentoring newer workers, and that is an attractive option for somebody who is doing a lot of physical labor, she said.

Reaching out to students

“One of the early on priorities of CEWD was to focus on career awareness and we have a website called, Get Into Energy, that has videos and clips and tons of information about all the different careers in our industry,” Miller said. “CEWD also provides tools to our members, slide presentations, all sorts of audio visual, and things they can go into middle schools [and present]; they can go into high schools and begin to talk about career opportunities.”

Utilities and EEI reach out to students through job fairs, for instance, she said. Many EEI member companies also have energy career academies, which “are sort of like a high school within a high school … so if you’re learning trigonometry in an energy career academy, you’re going to learn in a context of how a line worker would use trigonometry on the job,” she said.

“We have companies that sponsor summer camps that expose children to our industry,” she said, adding that companies also sponsor and participate in robotics efforts.

“Our companies are very active in getting the word out about what great career opportunities utilities offer,” she said.

Southern Company (NYSE:SO) spokesperson Jeannice Hall told TransmissionHub that the company is reaching out to students to promote careers in the electric utility industry. “By focusing on our inclusive and dynamic workforce that is committed to providing customer value in serving our communities, we elevate our team-oriented culture to students of all ages,” she said.

Southern Company has a history of partnering with various organizations to create and nurture a skilled workforce not only for the company, but the industry, Hall said, adding, “Our programs, such as energy education, various summer camps, hand-on career expos, robotics competitions and educator workshops reach middle and high school students across our footprint.”

The company has been instrumental in developing energy curricula and high school academies, and supports SkillsUSA, which according to its website is a partnership of students, teachers and industry working together to ensure the country has a skilled workforce.

Hall also said that Southern Company has also partnered with technical colleges to develop programs focused on instrumentation and control, nuclear technology, process operations and line worker certificate programs. 

The company offers various programs and other opportunities to match students’ interests with potential careers in the energy industry.

“Through our cooperative education, internship and full-time programs, we are working to develop and retain talented students – many of whom eventually become Southern Company employees,” Hall said, noting that these programs are designed to provide students a structured educational experience, blending classroom learning with practical work assignments.

NextEra Energy (NYSE:NEE) subsidiary Florida Power & Light (FPL) also collaborates with colleges, company spokesperson Elaine Hinsdale told TransmissionHub.

For instance, Miami Dade College (MDC) and FPL, in partnership with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) developed the Power Plant Technology Institute. The program trains students for careers in the construction and operation of the infrastructure needed to distribute electricity, at either FPL’s Turkey Point nuclear power plant or at FPL sites in the transmission and substation department, Hinsdale added.

“Graduates of the two-year MDC program received a comprehensive education in power plant operations and technologies, gained hands-on experience through a paid summer internship at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant and earned an associate degree in science,” she said, adding that the graduates then transition to full-time positions at FPL.

Since the program’s inception five years ago, 94 graduates have been hired or advanced by FPL.

She also noted that students in the MDC program choose to major in one of the following areas: instrumentation and controls, electrical maintenance, mechanical maintenance or the new specialization in transmission and substation.

Indian River State College (IRSC) and FPL, in partnership with the IBEW, also developed a Power Plant Technology Institute. Graduates there earn an associate degree in applied science and gain hands-on experience through a paid summer internship at FPL’s St. Lucie nuclear power plant. Hinsdale added the new hires will begin their jobs with full-time positions at that power plant at competitive salaries with attractive benefits packages.

With the support of grants from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation (NSF), this program is designed to support workforce development and respond to the growing energy need on the Treasure Coast for employees trained in the latest energy technologies, Hinsdale said, adding that since the program’s inception five years ago, FPL has hired 99 graduates.

Students choose to major in one of five areas: instrumentation and controls, electrical maintenance, mechanical maintenance, radiological protection or the new specialization in transmission and substation.

‘America’s electric utility workforce is aging’

Hall said: “We have a deep pool of talent, but America’s electric utility workforce is aging. Within a little more than 10 years, a large percentage of our workforce may turn over. Focusing on our employees will help us attract, develop and retain talented employees who are just now entering the job market.”

Southern Company focuses on technology implementation and integration into all segments of the business while aligning workforce planning. Hall added that by identifying individuals who can move into new roles as technology and the workplace evolve, the company can hire for the long term, noting that equipping employees to thrive in a more technologically driven environment brings positive benefits to employees and customers.

“By providing employees training and development opportunities, we position them for success in the jobs of today and the future,” she said.

The company’s compensation and benefits philosophy includes four focus areas: creating long-term value through retaining employees, making a difference in the health and well-being of the workforce, pay-for-performance alignment to drive results and maintaining the competitiveness of the compensation and benefits packages.

Hall also said that the company performs routine and comprehensive assessments to compare its pay and benefits against other large employers, adding that a 2012 review showed Southern Company’s pay programs and benefits were in line with other utilities and Fortune 500 companies.

“Due in part to the nature of our business, Southern Company makes a conscious decision to hire for the long term,” Hall said.

Like Miller, she noted that many electric utility jobs are highly technical and it takes time for employees to become fully trained. For example, Hall said, it can take seven or eight years, on average, for a line worker to complete the required training.

“By offering competitive, quality benefits, Southern Company supports our employees with valuable coverage for their personal, professional and retirement needs,” she said. Hall noted that one area of demonstrated commitment to its recruitment efforts involves veterans.

“Southern Company and its subsidiaries recognize the immense value of skills that veterans bring to a variety of positions, including line workers, plant operators, shift support supervisors, technicians and information technology professionals,” she said. “Veterans are a natural fit for Southern Company because the cultures of the military and the utility industry are very similar – both exemplify dedication, commitment to safety, teamwork and excellence in all they do.”

Veterans currently account for 11% – or nearly 2,700 – of the company’s more than 26,000 employees, she said.

Retirement issues at the RTO level

The Midwest ISO (MISO) is not in exactly the same situation as the utilities but it can relate, John Shepelwich, MISO’s director of corporate communications, told TransmissionHub.

“While we are barely a decade old, we are seeing the average age go up for the workforce in some of our key positions, particularly the shift jobs in our operations area,” he said. “We are working to bring up younger personnel and facilitate the transfer of knowledge that has been absorbed by some employees who essentially have been here since start-up.”

He said one of the ways MISO has successfully brought in new employees for a number of years is through an extensive internship program that draws from colleges and universities throughout the Midwest and, now, in its new Southern Region.

It is not unusual for MISO to hire from the annual class of interns, he said, adding that many former interns, especially with high-tech degrees and skills, are working with MISO today. Generally, MISO will offer full-time jobs – for after graduation – to about eight to 10 in each class.

MISO is making employee development a key focus area for at least the next few years, he added.

“We want to be sure the company attracts and retains high performers, and that they are able to develop and broaden their roles here,” Shepelwich said. “Supervisors this year have dedicated more of their employees’ individual performance goals toward personal and professional development. That allows MISO to build a deeper ‘bench’ with diverse and high potential employees who will soon begin to fill key jobs in the company and ultimately find themselves in leadership and executive positions.”

About Corina Rivera-Linares 3277 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares, chief editor for TransmissionHub, has covered the U.S. power industry for the past 16 years. Before joining TransmissionHub, Corina covered renewable energy and environmental issues, as well as transmission, generation, regulation, legislation and ISO/RTO matters at SNL Financial. She has also covered such topics as health, politics, and education for weekly newspapers and national magazines. She can be reached at clinares@endeavorb2b.com.