Power Work Shifts

For most of the history of the power industry, utility jobs were secure and long-tenured. Though they continue to offer greater stability than many other comparably paid jobs, forces on both sides of the employment contract are changing that paradigm. I’m not talking just about job losses resulting from coal power plant retirements; employment shifts are affecting every sector of the industry. To help put recent changes in perspective, let’s look at the larger context in which this industry operates.

Employment Numbers in Context

In late March, the Department of Energy (DOE) released its first annual “National Energy Employment Analysis,” which found that, of the 3.64 million Americans who work in “traditional energy industries, including production, transmission, distribution, and storage,” 600,000 “contribute to the production of low-carbon electricity, including renewable energy, nuclear energy and low emission natural gas.”

The report says that data collected through the Energy Employment Index “reveals that employers in generation and fuels anticipate the sector will grow by about 4% over the coming 12 months, creating an additional 57,395 jobs.” However, because the fuels and generation sectors are very different, these numbers don’t tell us much, as the DOE acknowledged in a comment to POWER; it plans to handle categories differently in future surveys.

One thing most folks in the power industry probably will agree with is the report’s finding that “over 70 percent of all employers surveyed found it ‘difficult or very difficult’ to hire new employees with needed skills.” When they do find workers with appropriate skills, it can be difficult to hold on to them. That’s a function both of industry-specific factors and the fact that the U.S. is near what the Federal Reserve considers full employment.

To put the power industry’s experience with retention in perspective, consider that in 2012 the average American worker stayed in a job 4.6 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That might seem short, but it’s longer than the average 10, 20, and even 30 years ago.

The BLS in March 2015 released a report that studied jobs held by the younger cohort of Baby Boomers (those born from 1957 to 1964) over the first three-fifths of their working years, from ages 18 to 48. It found that they held an average of 11.7 jobs over those 30 years (on average, 11.8 jobs for men and 11.5 jobs for women). That’s an average of 2.5 years in a position—for Baby Boomers, not Millennials.

As for the Boomers’ kids, a post from May last year at FiveThirtyEight.com, the site for data analysis enthusiasts, notes that, “Younger workers do tend to change jobs more often than older workers, but that’s always been true. Numbers on job tenure for Americans in their 20s were almost exactly the same in the 1980s as they are today” (in contrast to the overall average noted above). The impression that Millennials job-shift more than older workers may be created because there are a lot of them in the workforce—even more than there are Baby Boomers, by some accounts.

New Realities of Power Employment

Current power industry staffing challenges aren’t going away, so this issue offers a set of four cover stories that provide valuable information about how individual companies and industry groups are employing new strategies to recruit, train, and retain employees from younger generations. The approaches presented may not be the complete answer to the industry’s employment concerns, but they’re certainly fresher and more-viable ones than I’ve seen in a decade.

In particular, I was excited to learn that some employers are facing the reality that younger people often want to work in wind and solar facilities rather than “dirty old” thermal plants. (For an interesting update on last month’s editorial coverage of community solar, see the sidebar.)

Update on the Origins of “Community Solar”

Last month, my editorial, “Doublespeak Is No Cure for Utility Ills,” addressed the history of the concept of community solar projects. In the spirit of “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan,” this month I offer another contender for the “father” of community solar—none other than POWER’s previous editor-in-chief, Dr. Robert Peltier, PE!

In an email exchange with my former colleague about that editorial, Bob wrote, “it’s yours truly who coined the term in 1992.” As evidence, he sent an ASME paper published that year. Bob had gotten involved in a project in Phoenix with developer John F. Long, who built a 20-home neighborhood with a centralized photovoltaic (PV) system from which the electricity was shared. At the time, this 175-kW-rated system was considered the largest privately owned, grid-connected residential PV system in the world, as well as the “world’s largest ground-mounted, fixed, flat-plate array of any kind.”

Bob was a professor at Arizona State University in those days and was asked by Long and the homeowners “to write a program to proportion out the electricity savings among the owners, deal with Salt River Project, as well as publish the results of the operation of their ‘community-owned’ PV system.”

Bob added, “And, even better, your definition of community PV is exactly the same definition that we used in 1990,” (when work on the project began).

Some managers are recognizing that the fastest way to reinforce an anti-fossil bias is to dismiss renewables as expensive or trendy or not interesting enough. Instead, they’re showing young engineers how the knowledge and skills they’ll acquire at a fossil plant can translate to any sort of power system, whether it’s large or small, using fossil or renewable energy, or owned by a utility or a self-generating large customer. That’s a powerful message. ■

Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s editor.