Trends and Obstacles in the Power Industry Workforce

Baby boomers are retiring, unemployment is low, skilled craft workers are in short supply, and human resources in the workforce are a growing issue for power industry management.

“Demography is destiny.” That useful phrase, often attributed to 19th century French social scientist (and father of “positivism”) Auguste Comte, offers an important lesson for the electric power industry today.

For a powerful example, look at the massive, troubled Vogtle nuclear construction project in Georgia. Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power, majority owner of the project, reported to the Georgia Public Service Commission in late April that construction contractor Bechtel is facing a serious problem attracting skilled labor to the site, where some 5,000 workers are building the two-unit, 2,234-MW nuclear plant expansion.

Georgia Power told the state regulators that labor shortages, particularly in skilled craft workers, could delay the already badly behind schedule project beyond the current projections of 2021 and 2022 (Figure 1). Shortages of workers also impact the construction costs, as the existing labor force must often work overtime, earning pay premiums. The report says unanticipated labor costs were “sending its budget 20 percent above what was initially set.”

Fig 1_ironworkers USACE_web
1. Staffing woes. Skilled craft labor, such as electricians, pipefitters, and ironworkers, are in high demand. Georgia Power recently informed the Georgia Public Service Commission that labor shortages could delay completion of the Vogtle nuclear expansion. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Jon Fleshman

A Georgia Power spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the utility company is “actively working with the building trades to attract and hire the craft labor needed for the project,” including a recent Bechtel-hosted job fair for skilled craftsmen.

U.S. Population and Economics

The Vogtle project is a microcosm of larger trends in U.S. labor demographics and industry economics found throughout the power industry. The Population Education website highlights some of the demographic issues in the U.S. today. The fertility rate in 2016 was 1.9 children per woman, below replacement level fertility of 2.1. The birth rate remains higher than the national death rate, so the population is growing, but very slowly. That’s combined with the aging of the baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), which reduces the workforce by retirements and death.

Immigration has become more important in America’s population. Population Education notes, “Immigration accounted for 45% of population growth in 2016, and in several states (Maryland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island) made the difference between a shrinking population and a growing one. In 34 states, international arrivals outpaced domestic arrivals (people moving between states).” U.S. immigration policy will contribute to how this trend moves, as the Trump administration wants to slow immigration. The Washington Post recently editorialized, “America needs more workers. Trump’s war on immigration won’t help.”

Economics also makes a major contribution to workforce issues. The U.S. economy is growing steadily, if not spectacularly, averaging around 2% annually for the past several years, while U.S. unemployment has been reduced from a high of about 10% in 2009 to 3.9% in April, the lowest in 17 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The result is increased competition for labor, particularly skilled labor.

The increased competition among employers comes as the electricity business is experiencing low growth and stagnant revenues and profits. Competitive power markets, which cover about half of U.S. utility customers, require bidders into wholesale markets to keep costs as low as possible.

Looking at utility employment over a decade ago, Brad Kitterman and Jack Dugan, then with the information technology consulting firm Logica, which has since become part of CGI, wrote, “At most utilities, little or no opportunity for significant revenue growth has existed for some time while increasing personnel related expenses have continued to squeeze profit margins. To achieve the annual earnings improvement targets of 10–15% their stakeholders have expected, utilities have had no alternative but to reduce ongoing operational expenses dramatically, and often that has meant cutting staff.” Little has changed (see sidebar “A Statistical Snapshot of the Electric Power Workforce”).

A Statistical Snapshot of the Electric Power Workforce

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that more than 1.9 million people are employed in jobs related to electric power generation and fuels, while 2.2 million people are working in industries directly or partly related to energy efficiency. Job growth in renewable energy is particularly strong.

From 2010 to 2015, the solar industry created 115,000 new jobs. In 2016, approximately 374,000 individuals worked, in whole or in part, for solar firms, with more than 260,000 of those employees spending most of their time on solar. There were an additional 102,000 workers employed at wind farms across the nation. The solar workforce increased by 25% in 2016 (Figure 2), while wind employment increased by 32%.

Fig 2_solar workforce
2. Solar industry jobs explode. According to the Department of Energy, solar firms employed, in whole or in part, about 374,000 people in 2016, a 25% increase from 2015. Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Evolving Challenges

In reporting on Vogtle’s labor shortages, the Journal-Constitution interviewed the manager of the Augusta, Georgia, office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He told the newspaper that the dearth of skilled labor is a statewide problem, “which he attributes in part to an abundance of ongoing construction projects across the state. He said hiring for Vogtle is especially difficult as other companies are providing better pay and incentives, luring some skilled workers away from the plant.”

In its Quarterly Energy Review released in January, the U.S. Department of Energy said, “The evolving demands on the electricity industry are causing a number of workforce challenges for the electricity industry, which include large shifts in skills needed and in geographic location of jobs, a skills gap for deploying and operating newer technologies, changes occurring during a period when the industry is facing high levels of retirements, and challenges recruiting and retaining a workforce that reflects the gender and racial diversity of the Nation [see sidebar “The Whistleblower Challenge”]. At the same time, the evolution of the industry is also creating a number of new workforce opportunities, including jobs in renewable energy, natural gas, and information and communications technology (ICT).”

The review emphasized the changing nature of electric industry jobs. “The electricity industry offers diverse jobs, which require a variety of skills. … Traditional jobs, such as lineman, will continue to be needed, but the increase of renewable energy, as well as an increased ICT component to the electricity industry, will change the skillset required for many jobs in the electricity system of the 21st century.”

Andrew Bennett of Schneider Electric three years ago noted, “More than one-half of the current utility workforce will be eligible to retire in the next 6–8 years,” leaving a gap in legacy knowledge. At the same time, “the number of graduating engineers entering the utility workforce is on the decline and recruiting new workers with the right skills for the job is becoming more difficult each year.”
DOE added, “The electricity industry will need a cross-disciplinary power grid workforce that can comprehend, design, and manage cyber-physical systems; the industry will increasingly require a workforce adept in risk assessment, behavioral science and familiarity with cyber hygiene.” The Quarterly Energy Review also flagged a current problem that flows from industry practices some 30 years ago. “A dip in the number of electricity industry workforce training programs in the 1980s contributed to a currently low number of workers in the electric utilities able to move into middle and upper management positions—creating a workforce gap as the large number of baby boomers retire.”

Diversity is also a problem, according to DOE. “Electricity and related industries employ fewer women and minorities than the national average, but have a higher proportion of veterans. Only 5 percent of the boards of utilities in the United States in 2015 include women, and approximately 13 percent of board members among the top 10 publicly owned utilities were African American or Latino. Underrepresentation in or lack of access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics educational opportunities and programs contribute to the underrepresentation of minorities and women within the electricity industry.”

Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, DOE reported that electric power generation provided 192,000 jobs in 2015, with an average annual income of $116,000. Electric transmission and distribution provided 290,000 jobs with an average annual income of $99,000.

Attracting Talent

Electric companies are well aware of the human resource challenges facing them, but none has yet offered solutions that have attracted widespread adoption. Increased pay is one obvious approach, but the weakened state of utility earnings can be an obstacle. Job fairs are an easy approach, but without incentives for workers to switch jobs, they aren’t likely to yield major results.

Other industries have begun offering signing bonuses for skilled trades. The Wall Street Journal reported that two major U.S. rail carriers, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, are offering up to $25,000 signing bonuses for trades such as electrician, plumber, and pipefitter (Figure 3). That’s on top of jobs that average $40,000 in pay for the first year and $60,000 for the next.

Marc Lyda, with Trade Mechanical, welds an intake for heating water in Bldg. 9301 as part of an energy savings project with Oklahoma Gas & Electric and Honeywell. (Air Force photo by Kelly White)
3. Sign me up. Skilled trade workers, including electricians, boilermakers, and pipefitters, are being offered signing bonuses by BNSF Railways, a rare windfall for blue-collar recruits. Source: U.S. Air Force/Kelly White

A spokeswoman for BNSF (owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which also owns the electric utility MidAmerican Energy) told the newspaper, “We are constantly evaluating the market and will use this approach when it makes sense to recruit talented individuals for hard to fill positions or locations.”

Global energy giant Siemens has long had a commitment to apprenticeships, growing out of its experience in Germany where apprenticeships are a widespread and popular part of industrial human resources programs. A U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) publication quotes David Etzweiler, CEO of the Siemens Foundation, “We’re passionate about scaling this ‘earn and learn’ model in the U.S. Siemens knows first-hand how valuable apprenticeships are to growing the workforce needed to be successful.” The publication identifies American Electric Power, Great River Energy, Idaho Power, and MidAmerican Energy as among the leaders in electric utility apprenticeship programs, which the federal department encourages. DOL identifies powerhouse electrician, line maintenance, instrumentation technician, and substation operator as among the skills companies are targeting with apprenticeship programs.

A wrinkle on utility apprenticeship programs is the Northwest Lineman College, an accredited four-year private-sector school to train lineworkers. Started in 1993, the college’s main campus is in Idaho, with other locations in California, Texas, and Florida. It describes itself as “a four-year educational curriculum providing the related instruction component of apprenticeship for lineworkers. It is a fully accredited program offered to electric utility and construction companies for their apprentice lineworker employees.

“Northwest Lineman College provides all related instruction, manages training calendars and records, and sends notification of all required training for apprentices. Upon successful completion, enrollees will earn Northwest Lineman College Certificate of Completion and Department of Labor Journeyman Certification if the participating utility or construction company’s program is registered with the Office of Apprenticeship or similar state agency.”

The Whistleblower Challenge

Understanding and dealing with employees who feel they or the public have been subject to discrimination, particularly when they believe company management has been covering up personal or public health and safety issues, has long been a challenge to the power industry. Tough federal laws and a tight labor market together make dealing with whistleblowers even more difficult.

Today’s labor market, as older workers move out and younger staff take their place, could make whistleblowing more common, Sherry Travers (Figure 4), an expert in labor and employment law at the Dallas firm of Littler Mendelson, told POWER. “Somebody in their 40 to 60s may be reluctant to raise issues because [they] believe they might have problems finding another job. People coming into the work force don’t have that perspective.”

Fig 3_Sherry Travers
4. Human resource policy expert. Sherry Travers has extensive experience litigating and consulting on behalf of management regarding a variety of labor and employment topics including whistleblowing and retaliation. Courtesy: Littler Mendelson

There is a tendency for management to want to retaliate when an employee raises health, safety, or discrimination issues, according to Travers. That’s the worst possible reaction, as numerous laws at the federal and state level are designed to protect against retaliation. Those laws are designed to encourage people to come forward. Also, the rise of social media and access to news media has given aggrieved or injured workers powerful tools to make their case.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Inspector General offers online whistleblower information and a “whistleblower protection ombudsman.” The office says, “Whistleblowers play a critical role in keeping our government honest, efficient and accountable. In recognition of this, federal laws outline the duty of federal employees to disclose wrongdoing, and they are to do so in an environment free from the threat of retaliation.” DOE contractor employees are also protected against retaliation.

DOE says the whistleblower ombudsman’s role “is to educate DOE employees, contractors and grantees about prohibitions on retaliation for protected disclosures and their rights and remedies if they have been retaliated against for making protected disclosures. The law does not permit the whistleblower protection ombudsman to act as a legal representative, agent, or advocate for DOE employees, contractors and grantees.”

Two industries in Travers’ practice, health care and financial services, have made great strides in developing structures and policies to manage whistleblowing and eschew any form of retaliation. Not so much in energy, said Travers. “Energy industries have basically been in the shadows of health care and financial services.”

There is a tendency among some managers to turn a blind eye to workday problems. According to Travers, when it comes to energy workplaces, “workers tend to be out in the field and more remote from top level management. There are also transient workers. It’s much easier for things to go undetected or unaddressed.”

When it comes to responding correctly to whistleblowers, including issues of internal reporting and redress of legitimate claims, “the energy industry is way behind,” said Travers. Many are still in the bad old days of the “hotline,” where employees can call in their grievances. “Those are a black hole, where a worker calls in and nothing gets done.”

Instead, companies need to plan programs to respond to whistleblowers that include training managers, providing clear communication, ensuring transparency of the process, and responding rapidly. “If a complaint is filed,” said Travers, “something must be done about it. Quickly.”

Changing Business Practices

While most of what utilities are looking at to meet their workforce problems—pay, job fairs, bonuses, training, and apprenticeships—are fairly conventional, consultants Kitterman and Dugan suggested a more radical approach in 2006. “Utilities now have the unique possibility of making business improvements that can reduce future costs,” they said.

The crux of their approach was a “digital organization,” where “the high performance utility will institutionalize (capture existing employee knowledge about) its key procedures and business processes, and exploit documented best practices before employees fly out the door. The high performance utility will succeed by challenging accepted ideas of business as usual and finding new ways to perform and improve on its core business despite staffing challenges. … An integrated universal communications platform must be viewed as the next technology that will afford utilities further opportunities to lessen their dependence on headcount.”

Since then, many utilities have moved in that direction, although none appear to have achieved total interconnectivity of operations. Last year CGI consultants interviewed 116 utility clients. They said, “The client insights indicate that executives are accelerating digital to enable deep transformation and lead in operational excellence.” Of those interviewed, 88% said a top goal in their organization was “becoming digital organizations for customer and operational excellence.” ■

Kennedy Maize is a long-time energy journalist and frequent contributor to POWER.