Photo by Portland General Electric.
A human resources official for Portland General Electric said her utility has seen less as a turnover problem and more ongoing retirements in the industry and a restless workforce in America.

To Quit, or Commit

Aug. 10, 2022
How utilities can hold on to their best and brightest in ‘the Great Resignation.’
This is partly a story borne out of frustration. To do my job and find stories about the electric utility industry, I have to cultivate sources like any journalist. My colleagues and I have a shared document with hundreds of names and points of contact. Sometime about a year ago, though, a lot of these sources went quiet, their emails bounced back, calls went unreturned, or I heard from someone they had moved on. How am I supposed to cover this industry if everyone is switching jobs? Each time it happens, I am sent back to square one and must cultivate new sources, which takes a lot of time and attention. Follow me on LinkedIn, by the way, while we’re on the topic.

After a few months of this happening and my list of contacts feeling half obsolete, I thought I can’t be the only one having this issue. The phenomenon goes by a few different names: The Great Reshuffle, The Big Quit, The Great Resignation. Under 2022 conditions, the economy is – theoretically anyway – busy enough. However, factors like rising costs of living and wage stagnation, coupled with on-the-job dissatisfaction are causing more people to update their resumes and start putting out feelers for what else might be out there.

Other business writers are speculating whether this may be over, but that may be a touch optimistic. In any event, this macroeconomic trend is bound to hit utilities differently because there are a lot of demands on utility workers. The work that needs doing requires years of specialized training, technical knowledge and sometimes a willingness to go out in the middle of nowhere where the work needs to be done.

Or, if we are talking about a more white-collar utility career, energy companies are facing stiff competition from a glitzier, perhaps more exciting field: Big Tech. High technology needs electricity to function, but more young people are imagining themselves as coding an app in Silicon Valley than learning how to design electrical transformers.

“The colleges and universities moved on to talking about Silicon Valley and high tech, while the power path was less attractive to people. That really hurt us, and I don’t think we understood how bad it hurt us until now when we started to feel it,” said Jason Hostetter, Senior Vice President of Field Operations for TRC Companies, an engineering, consulting and construction firm based in Connecticut.

Hostetter said he does not want to be a “doom-and-gloomer,” but the industry sits at a confluence of troubling workforce issues.

“Human performance error is getting people hurt on the job,” Hostetter said. “We are already short on workers, so this is a problem that definitely needs to be addressed. Again, I swear I’m not a doom-and-gloomer. More than 80% of energy employers are having trouble hiring qualified workers. I don’t think it’s 80%. I think it’s much higher than that.”

Hostetter cited a 2021 report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave U.S. infrastructure, including the power grid, a C- grade due to insufficient investments in upgrades as well as an overreliance upon aging assets. Failure to properly train the next generation of workers, he added, would make the industry too reliant upon aging people as well.

“Finding qualified and experienced workforce in our sector has become like finding a unicorn,” Hostetter said. “If nobody wants to be a lineman, we’re in trouble. If nobody wants to be an electrician, we’re in trouble.”

It is the responsibility of the industry itself to reach out to the public and highlight the benefits of working in the utility industry. There is hope, Hostetter stresses.

“I believe it’s our responsibility to give people the tools they need to work effectively and safely. And we can provide them with a great career and a great industry,” he said.

Hiring for Culture

Morteza Talebi, National Testing & Commissioning Technical Training Manager at TRC Companies, spoke at the same IEEE/PES Transmission and Distribution conference session as Hostetter, and engaged conference attendees on matters of workplace culture.

“I see the mix of people here, which makes me very happy,” Talebi said. “The new generation is loyal only to their own career. If you do not provide for them, they are not going to stay and see if it’s going to happen or not.”

Organization and industry culture are just as important as technical knowledge, Talebi said. Training begins with the onboarding process. Coaching and mentoring need to begin immediately. 

“If people don’t feel that they fit into your organization, they will leave and go to work somewhere else, and you lose your access to their skills and knowledge,” Talebi said.

The difference between a worker who feels welcomed and valued in their workplace can be as simple as communicating with them in a way they are comfortable with. Talebi said when he speaks with his father, it might take half an hour to get around to the point.

With his own son, however, Talebi finds that everything his son wants to say will be said in 5 minutes or less without spending a lot of time on preludes. If relationships between fathers and sons have changed this much, we should also expect relationships between people at work to change also.

“I prefer text messages. I am not a phone person,” he said. “The new generation does not want to be called after 5:00 p.m., or on the weekends. You cannot blame them. That’s where they are.”

Safety is Everything

Tom Cohenno, Principal of Applied Learning Science, a workforce development firm for technical employees, said the industry needs to realize that there are no easy answers to these problems because the easy answers have already been put into place.

“We’re now moving more into a psychological domain which is uncomfortable because it is a new concept, but actually an old practice. The trick is to advance the experience derived from a long career into those with less tenure, preventing injury and death,” Cohenno said.

All workers are guilty of a fundamental attribution error where we judge other people’s behavior uncharitably but cut ourselves slack. For example, everyone who went abroad publicly during COVID-19 lockdowns had a good reason in their own minds, even if they were judging others harshly for the same choices. The safety techniques the industry passes on needs to account for human foibles, Cohenno said.

“The reality is that we are all weak, flawed and subject to bias and error.  We need to design work such that it can accommodate these universal human deficits and still remain positive and safe,” Cohenno said.

Utilities have a culture based fundamentally on the regulatory compact, strong union representation and the requirement to ensure that the existing system remains energized and viable. 

“It is basically the opposite of traditional business, rather than growing outwardly, we’re focused on care and feeding of the existing system; fine tuning, tweaking and reinforcing the system and each other.  It is not necessarily bad; it is what is required.  Customers need us to be this way,” Cohenno said.

Focusing on safe operations builds corporate and worker pride, in addition to simply preventing injury and death. 

“Pride in the work and the organization serves as retention magnet. Safety is the mother of all organizational challenges. Solve safety, you solve anything,” he said.

Cohenno said he has not seen a mass exodus out of the utility infrastructure sector, with many people already established preferring to stick around, potentially raise a family and contribute to valuable work that serves society as a whole. However, he agrees that there is some pressure coming from the high technology side, such as IT.

“Line workers, protection engineers, gas technicians are all trained for purpose and the primary alternative would be a contractor position,” he said. “Future proofing to me is about improving safety and operational performance and less about retention.”

Staying Competitive

Ursula Schryver, Vice President of Strategic Member Engagement and Education for the American Public Power Association, said the skill sets of many utility jobs are transferrable to other industries, and often these industries pay significantly more.

“It’s important that utilities pay a competitive wage,” Schryver said. “Some public power employees might be willing to accept lower salaries and hourly pay because of other lifestyle considerations, but talented workers might not be willing to hold out when competitors are willing to provide substantial pay increases.”

While pay is certainly a crucial element to attracting and retaining talent, there are other considerations. Candidates are also concerned about culture, non-pay benefits and other factors, such as the ability to telecommute.

APPA recently conducted a member survey assessing productivity and morale of the workforce as well as views on what changes will be made to the workplace as a result of the pandemic.

“Responses varied, but most utilities that transitioned to telework felt that employees were productive, but that teamwork suffered to a degree. Most agreed that some changes will likely be made in the future as it relates to telework,” Schryver said.

APPA and the industry as a whole are focused on getting the word out about positions that do not require a college degree but still provide reliable jobs and good pay, such as line work.

“Line worker recruitment and retention has been and continues to be a challenge,” Schryver said. “There is an opportunity to expand the pool of talent by reaching out to minorities, women, veterans and other pools of candidates that have not been heavily represented in the past.”

Schryver said Tacoma Public Utilities’ Women in Trades events are an example of how utilities can reach out to populations who are not well represented in utility work historically.

Washington-based Tacoma Public Utilities runs the program to train line, wire and metering apprentices in a 7,000-hour program with benefits and pay around the $75,000 per year mark, with opportunities to make more than $100,000 per year post apprenticeship.

Paul DeMichele, Manager of Media Relations and Corporate Communications for the New York Power Authority, said like many organizations, NYPA has had its share of turnover in recent months.

“However, it hasn’t been significantly more than in an average non-pandemic year. Still, there are some areas that have felt turnover more than others,” DeMichele said. “We also have succession plans in place and are putting a stronger focus on creating clear career paths for employees, which has reduced our time to fill open roles.”

The utility still receives interest from qualified candidates for open roles, DeMichele said, adding that when employees believe in the overall mission, this benefits the organization.

“We have a mission-and-value-driven culture and are finding that prospective and current employees are more passionate than ever about the betterment of the economy and environment and NYPA’s role in transitioning New York to a clean energy economy,”

Responding to a question about “Zoom fatigue,” or the frustration with remote work that sometimes sets in, DeMichele said a collaborative, in-person work environment is hard to replicate from a distance.

“For employees who aren’t required to be on-site every day to do their jobs, we have had a lot of success with a hybrid work model,” DeMichele said. “There’s really no substitution for the camaraderie built through face-to-face interaction—but the world is changing and, more and more, professionals want flexibility. NYPA leadership is empowering our workforce by designing workweeks that fit their needs, while still ensuring that operations run smoothly.”

Restless Workforce

Anne Mersereau, Vice President of Human Resources Diversity Equity and Inclusion at Portland General Electric said her utility has seen less as a turnover problem and more ongoing retirements in the industry and a restless workforce in America due to the COVID pandemic.

“We are finding it harder to recruit a large talent pool for open roles given how many jobs are available right now and the competitive market. This is a two-part problem because some of the issue is accessibility of utility sector jobs. Especially in clean energy where so many of the roles and needs associated with them are so new and undefined,” Mersereau said.

Mersereau agreed with Schryver that employees want to value the work they are doing and know it contributes to a larger purpose.

“We used to struggle to find high quality candidates in our region given the competition with Nike, Adidas, and other great brands, but in the last few years we really saw that turn around and we were able to showcase our strong employee value proposition,” Mersereau said. “Now we have reached the other side of that curve and are starting to lose some people to companies like Meta, Tesla, and others who see the work our employees have done and what they have created here and want to institute that at their own companies.”

During lockdown, a lot of people had time to reassess and reprioritize, and on top of this some families now need to be more flexible due to childcare constraints. Employees are expecting their workplaces to be more accommodating when and where work can be done remotely.

“We do not have a one-size-fits-all return-to-workplace policy, but instead have left it up to individual employees and their managers to ensure people are able to remain flexible,” Mersereau said. “The ‘Zoom fatigue’ hits us all some days, but we are now able to connect with our colleagues regardless of location like never before and that is certainly a silver lining.”

PGE is also focusing on training line workers on new tools, techniques and needed programs at its Sherwood Training Facility, making sure there is a pipeline of workers ready for tomorrow.

“So much of the technology, and subsequently many of the jobs we need to reach our clean energy goals, don’t exist yet, but they will very soon. So, we need to be supporting a strong pipeline of future employees while also empowering our current employees to take on the challenges of tomorrow,” Mersereau said.

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