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Creative Programs Help Overcome Workforce Challenges

Dec. 7, 2021
Finding and retaining employees in the current pandemic-influenced job market is often a struggle.

There are few assets, if any, more important to an electric utility than its workforce. Finding and retaining employees in the current pandemic-influenced job market is often a struggle. The nation’s unemployment rate dropped slightly to 4.8% in September, and the number of people actively looking for work dropped to about 7.7 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent report. This is the lowest unemployment rate since February 2020, the month before the country went into to lockdown.

A drop in the unemployment rate is generally a good thing for the country’s economy and its businesses, but in the current climate, many businesses are trying to hire workers to fill positions that have been open for months. Unfilled retail and food service positions are first to come to mind, but the labor shortage is impacting most every industry in the country, including the electric utility industry.

Long before the pandemic and the current labor shortage, however, electric utilities faced workforce challenges, as increasing numbers of longtime employees retired and walked away with decades of knowledge. The pandemic has exasperated existing workforce challenges for some, but utilities are problem solvers. Many have been addressing workforce challenges for years by devising creative ways to fill open positions and transfer knowledge from veteran employees to the newbies.

Before I became a journalist and began covering the electric utility industry, I worked for a utility. As a participant in one of those creative workforce programs, my entry into the industry was a bit unconventional. Shortly after graduating from college, I was hired by Entergy to work in one of its nuclear power plants. It was not a career path I envisioned for myself, but like many new college graduates then and now, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was fortunate to have discovered this opportunity with Entergy. The utility created a program designed to hire and train local people to fill positions in the power plant that were typically filled by individuals who had served in the U.S. Navy on nuclear submarines. These former Navy men (there were no ex-Navy women in these positions at that time) were knowledgeable and experienced in nuclear power, but not only were they few and far between, most were from other parts of the country and had no roots in the community. It was common for them to leave as soon as they could find work at a nuclear plant closer to home.

Because there were few colleges that offered nuclear curriculums at that time and there was a lot of competition in the job market for these individuals leaving the Navy, Entergy created a program aimed at investing in local people to fill positions in its nuclear plants. The “Grow Your Own” program meant that Entergy was taking a chance on hiring and training individuals who had no background in nuclear power. There was a lot of upfront costs for the utility because the training was extensive—eight hours a day in a classroom for about eight months and, depending on the position, some stayed in the classroom for a year or more. Once the classroom training was over, we moved into the plant to work alongside veteran employees to begin our on-the-job training.

Thanks to Entergy’s vision to create this program and my willingness to try something I never envisioned, I along with many others found not just a stable job that paid well and provided good benefits, but a pathway to a career and industry I love. Many of the people hired in my “class” as well as others before and after, remained with the company for years and some are still there. In addition, although diversity and inclusion were not emphasized then, Entergy clearly made them part of the program by hiring women and minorities to work in a field dominated by white men.

Programs like the one I went through were uncommon at that time. Since then, however, numerous electric utilities have faced engineering and technical, as well as craft and field worker shortages. Just as Entergy did many years ago, utilities have developed creative programs to find, hire and train the right people for the jobs.  

In the article "Diversity in the Line Trade,", Field Editor Amy Fischbach reveals how Duke Energy Florida developed a program to address workforce shortages and lack of diversity in linework and also help ensure that knowledge from experienced linemen is passed on to new employees. Duke Energy worked with other companies to develop detailed curriculums to train local workers. It found that the upfront investment in training local individuals pays off. In many cases, like me, these new hires knew nothing about the industry and never considered linework as a career.  But, as you’ll read in the article, most of the individuals who were open to the opportunities and completed the programs are now enjoying successful careers in the industry.

As utilities find themselves in a difficult job market, this article can serve not only as a reminder that there are solutions to tough challenges, but also as inspiration and maybe even a guide on how to recruit and develop a diverse workforce that will be available for years to come. If you’d like to read more stories about developing a line trade workforce, be sure to check out T&D World’s Lineman supplement, which was published in September. In it, you’ll find other articles from Amy about developing and nurturing a diverse workforce. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out the supplement.   

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