Twitter, text messages among outlets utilities use to communicate with customers

In the face of such challenges as an aging workforce and maintaining communication open with customers, utilities like Pepco Holdings (NYSE:POM) and Consolidated Edison’s (NYSE:ED) Consolidated Edison Company of New York (ConEd), continue to seek solutions, including mutual aid efforts, collaborating with high schools and using social media like Twitter.

During Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall on the East Coast in October 2012, ConEd more than doubled its work force through mutual aid efforts, Griffin Reilly, an engineer with the company, said on Oct. 30.

“The changes that are happening and the lessons learned from this are very important,” he said during a panel on extreme weather and T&D, part of TransmissionHub‘s TransForum East in Washington, D.C.

Coordinating mutual aid must be worked out countrywide; strengthening the process is “absolutely essential,” he said.

Bringing in 5,700 workers to help in the restoration process necessitated by Hurricane Sandy’s devastation was a learning curve for ConEd in terms of logistics, Reilly said.

For instance, a contractor from NextEra Energy‘s (NYSE:NEE) Florida Power & Light had to set up base camps as workers had to camp out.

Karen Onaran, manager, federal regulatory affairs with the Edison Electric Institute, noted that with regard to mutual aid, one of the initiatives many utilities, including Dominion (NYSE:D), is looking into is employing veterans.

“A lot of their skill sets are applicable to working on restoration and the technology, so I think there’s a real move by the industry to look towards returning troops also to bolster some of those retirements,” she said.

As TransmissionHub reported on Nov. 5, Onaran noted that an EEI initiative that came directly out of Sandy is the “national response event,” which occurs when several regions become depleted in their resources and a national response executive committee, made up of utility CEOs and senior executives, overlooks the process, which involves pooling all of the requests for crews and equipment, for instance, and allocating that based on need. 

Grappling with an aging industry

Utilities like ConEd and Pepco are also dealing with an aging workforce. As TransmissionHub reported in March, according to the “2011 Gaps in the Energy Workforce Pipeline Survey,” compiled by the Center for Energy Workforce Development, 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.

“We need to attract more people to our industry,” Reilly said.

ConEd went through a relatively aggressive hiring period over the course of six years, which ended about three years ago, to address its aging workforce and is now “waiting for what we see to be another wave of retirement coming,” he said.

That reflects the history of how the utility industry handled hiring, in that it did a lot of hiring in the 1970s and not much in the 1980s, Reilly said, adding, “[M]aybe it’s time that we learn a lesson from that.”

Maxwell noted that a few years ago, the average age for Pepco’s workforce was around 48 and it has since dropped to about 44.

An interesting development, he said, was that retired linemen would go to work for contractors, for instance.

In some cases, retirees returned to work only when there was a storm, which worked well for Pepco. “While there [are] a lot of folks retiring, they’re actually still in the workforce in some way, shape or form,” he said. “It’s actually quite helpful.”

In terms of bringing in future linemen, that has been a bit of a challenge for Pepco, Maxwell said, adding that some parts of the company’s territory are easier to hire workers in than others.

Pepco has worked with community colleges and high schools, including “adopting” a couple of area high schools to bring in future workers, he said.

A few years ago, Pepco started an intern program through which the company brought in high school sophomores and juniors to work in various departments. If the students received good appraisals, Pepco would send them an offer letter, contingent upon graduating on time, with a signing bonus of $5,000.

Pepco started bringing in about 10 or so engineering interns and is now bringing in about 35 to 40 per year, Maxwell added.

He also noted that the younger generation tends “to like to rotate and not stay in one place,” so Pepco has implemented a rotation program between departments with the idea “to give them an expanded horizon and expanded experiences.”

About that younger generation: Social media’s role in the industry

Reilly said social media is becoming more essential to ConEd’s communication efforts, particularly as it pertains to news updates following such weather events as Sandy. “I think that’s actually something that is positive moving forward and so we’ve had an enormous response in terms of how people interact with us using Twitter,” he said.

Another initiative that ConEd implemented recently is a texting program, through which customers can receive text messages on their cell phones about estimated times of restoration and when they can expect to see crews on their blocks, he said.

Maxwell said Pepco is also moving pretty fast with regard to social media, implementing such initiatives as apps for the iPad and iPhone that show outage maps and billing matters, for instance.

Pepco has also been very aggressive with its Twitter and Facebook efforts, communicating through those mediums during storms.

The company also communicates through a blog, continuously works on redesigning its website, and has hired a new manager of social media, he said.

EEI also works with social media, and its communications department constantly retweets what other utilities are tweeting, which is particularly important during storm restoration as it shows customers are being heard and “puts a face on the crews that are out there restoring power,” Onaran said.

For instance, a photo on Twitter can show a lineman from Louisiana wearing an Entergy (NYSE:ETR) badge helping to restore power in New York. That “really hits home” and puts a human face on the utility as workers are far from home making sure the lights come back on. “[I]t’s been very powerful,” she added.

About Corina Rivera-Linares 3150 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares, chief editor for TransmissionHub, has covered the U.S. power industry for the past 15 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.