AEP program attracts veterans as retirements loom

As the number of retirements in the utility industry accelerates, Ohio-based American Electric Power (NYSE:AEP) has accelerated its efforts to attract military veterans and help them make the transition to civilian careers in the utility industry as part of its overarching effort to grow a trained and talented workforce equipped to replace retiring employees.

“These folks have, no pun intended, the hard-wiring to really be successful in a utility,” Scott Smith, AEP’s senior vice president for transmission strategy and business operations, told TransmissionHub.

Smith, a veteran himself, is an advocate of veterans’ outreach and helped form AEP’s Military Veteran Employee Resource Group. He said the confluence of current staff retirements and military de-escalations around the world make the timing right to reach out to “those highly employable individuals.”

He said: “They have the skills, they have the mindset, and they’re used to following orders. We see them as an outstanding resource to get the type of personnel that we need to really help us out, both in the field and in the office.”

Smith noted that the retirement of the Baby Boom generation, which makes up a large portion of many utilities’ workforces, is looming just as the industry begins a period of rapid infrastructure expansion.

Many companies across the country have programs to attract returning veterans but face challenges that cut both ways, with both the employer and the individual finding it difficult to understand how military training and experience translates to the civilian sector, Smith said..

To help overcome that obstacle, AEP has partnered with the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and employs a software program that EEI developed in conjunction with the Center for Energy Workforce Development that allows veterans to input the codes for their military occupational skills training, then translates that training into the type of job for which they would be well-suited in the utility industry.

“I think that is probably the biggest inhibitor of employers getting military folks to fill their ranks,” Smith said. “They think everybody is just trained to fire a weapon and read a map and get from point A to point B. When they look, they actually find that their skill sets are very transferable.”

While Smith said skills including map reading are valuable, especially for work in the field, other skills such as communications skills directly translate to other aspects of utility work.

“We’ve found that people with these skill sets perform very well in our transmission and distribution dispatching, and they adapt well to the environment because it’s three-way communication, command-and-control,” he said, adding that ex-military are accustomed to high-pressure situations. “Quite frankly, dispatchers are placed under a lot of pressure and they have to follow the protocols in place.”

Of equal value to specific skills is the military mindset, Smith said.

“The military has constant training and that’s very similar to a utility environment,” he said. “We train these folks and they really excel in our training programs.”

Once in the field, the correlation between military and utility cultures becomes even more apparent. 

“Out in the field, they have to follow instructions,” he said. “There are highly technical issues that you have to deal with in running the grid, and these folks perform admirably.”

Finally, veterans tend to be more stable employees.

“When they come in, they tend to stay in,” he said. “They don’t jump around.”

To date, AEP has recruited more than 100 veterans through its outreach, the majority of whom are returning enlisted personnel. However, Smith said, “We don’t differentiate between former officers and enlisted; we’re just one big, happy family.”

AEP then provides the opportunity for one-on-one mentoring by staff members with military experience who work with newly hired veterans to make a smoother transition to the civilian workforce. Overall, slightly more than 10% of AEP’s hires over the past year were former military.

“It’s a great ‘perfect storm’ for military veterans,” Smith said. “We have a need. Unlike a lot of industries, most utilities are in the hiring mode.”

AEP serves customers in 11 states and has more than 40,000 miles of transmission which, directly or indirectly, serves about 10% of the electricity demand in the Eastern Interconnection, according to AEP’s website.