In the media

When you need more people on the line: Creative ideas for expanding the utilities talent pool

By Wei Du, Thomas Pierpoint

Powergrid International

26 October 2022

The typically steady electrical utility industry finds itself in the uncomfortable situation of almost every other business in 2022 — a competitive battle to attract and retain a committed, forward-thinking workforce that can respond to the industry’s many challenges.

Already facing the issue of Baby Boomer and Generation X employees retiring or moving on, the past two years have increased the labor shortage even more. Despite the essential work that the industry provides, utilities have not been immune from the effects of COVID-19 and the Great Resignation.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 13,300 openings for line workers and repair technicians annually over the next decade. While many utilities make do with contract workers, this isn’t a prudent or resilient long-term strategy.

Utility companies need innovative programs to raise awareness of the rewards of an electrical utility career among young people and non-traditional employees so that we can build the next generation of line workers.

Utility industry jobs: Not on younger generations’ radars

Ask a Generation Z or younger Millennials about working at a utility and it’s unlikely to generate the same level of enthusiasm as asking about working at Tesla or Google. There’s also the common assumption that parents and students don’t consider trade schools an attractive option.

Yet, look deeper and the tide is turning toward the trades. A 2021 poll showed that nearly half (46%) of parents were comfortable with paths outside of four-year colleges. Another survey showed the likelihood of teens pursuing a four-year degree dropped from 71% in 2020 to 48% in 2021, and more than half were open to other options. Enrollment at many trade colleges is trending upward.

The challenge is getting line technician and other utility jobs in front of young people seeking career paths. One solution is proactively expanding outreach to high schools, junior colleges, trade schools, and community job training programs.

Utilities are partnering with trade and high schools to jumpstart careers

Austin Energy is exploring a program with local high schools for students who want to learn more about being a line technician and other utility jobs. This includes active sponsorship and engagement by the Superintendent of one of the local school systems. For some programs this will be also supplemented with fast-track certificates being offered by the area Community College. This will help boost student confidence and offer a track to long-term education. Other industries have similar occupational programs, with some companies offering internships after students complete training.

In Nebraska, Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) is going higher up the education ladder by partnering with Nebraska colleges that offer utility line curricula. Northeast Community College offers a two-year associate of applied science degree that trains students in fundamentals like wiring and pole climbing while providing internships that offer real-world experience. Since it takes four years to become a journeyman linesperson, hiring a candidate with a substantial head start could help fill necessary roles faster.

Recruiting more non-traditional workers

Another tactic is to look to groups who have been ignored in the past. Stepping up the industry’s efforts in recruiting women, minorities, and ex-military could help ease the qualified worker crunch.

Austin Energy is working on broader recruitment for control room roles — jobs typically filled by men who have worked up from field positions. A critical first step has been developing a comprehensive training and education program along with job aids. This could potentially allow Austin Energy to emulate a successful program at Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) that brought more ex-military and women to the control room by supplementing on-the-job experience with training and educational materials.

Another example is PG&E’s Power Pathway program, which partners with local organizations to provide eight-week pre-apprenticeship courses in electrical and gas work. The program has led to 1,050 graduates with an 82% hire rate. Nearly half of the participants are ex-military, two-thirds are people of color, and more than 10% are women.

Utilities could also explore partnerships with community organizations that offer career training and certification programs to unemployed people who may face challenges, including minor criminal records or work gaps, in the job market. This large resource pool can be developed with programs that offer both general job skill training and more specific industry knowledge.

Meeting the TikTok generation where they live

While utility companies, including Austin Energy, have had success recruiting on LinkedIn, it is not a popular platform for Gen Z. Just 13.6% of users are ages 18 to 24. Utilities need to meet future recruits where they (digitally) live with stories that intrigue them.

The “utilities” hashtag on TikTok had more than 79 million views as of April with many videos seemingly made by workers, not utility companies. While most utilities excel at telling heroic stories of technicians who work relentlessly to restore power in storms, everyday stories of journeymen who love their jobs, their paycheck, and being outside can be powerful tools in sparking interest among young people.

Any opportunity to demonstrate the innovative technologies utilities are using, such as augmented reality, drones, automation, and exoskeletons, will show Gen Z that this isn’t their grandfather’s job anymore. Consider using virtual reality headsets at job fairs or high school visits to show a “day in the life” of a line worker is like.

Boosting retention to make the hard work of recruitment pay off

As crucial, if not more so, is retaining new employees with competitive pay, training opportunities, and career ladders. Utility leaders need to generate excitement for career paths with both the current generation and with their educators, and these elements can help.

Utilities can also work cross-functionally to address recruitment and retention issues. Meeting regularly with HR to explore the barriers to filling roles and understanding why people leave the company can fuel positive change.

While innovative awareness, recruitment, and training strategies can help fill roles, each company must look within to pay structures, career ladders, and company culture to keep those hard-won workers happy for the long run.

This article was first published in Powergrid International.

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