The number of power plant operator jobs is shrinking, but paradoxically, the number of job openings in the field is growing. Managers have their hands full finding and retaining the people they need. In this article you’ll learn some tips to make the process easier.
Most power plants don’t run themselves, at least not yet, they usually take knowledgeable workers to monitor processes and adjust plant equipment to optimize power production. And when I talk to plant managers, they often tell me that among their biggest challenges are recruiting and retaining high-quality, well-qualified skilled technicians and engineers.
A Shrinking Workforce
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts employment of power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers will decline 15% from 2021 to 2031. It cites technological advances and greater efficiency as the reason for the decrease in necessary workers. But the closing of many coal-fired power plants throughout the U.S. in coming years could also factor into the decline. That’s because coal plants are generally more labor intensive and have relatively higher staffing per MW of plant capacity than some other generation sources such as combined cycle gas turbine facilities or wind and solar farms.
Still, the BLS isn’t wrong about today’s power plants being more efficient. On average, the plants in operation today have higher electricity-generating capacity than those that were in operation a decade or two ago. Modernized control rooms in power plants also provide workers with more information, resulting in the ability to automate some tasks that used to be performed by people. All of these changes impact jobs negatively.
But jobs are not disappearing only from coal plants, the BLS also expects efficiency gains to negatively impact nuclear power plant operators similarly. In its job outlook for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers, the BLS says, “Nuclear power faces steep competition from renewable energy sources, making new, traditional reactors less attractive as many of the existing reactors reach the end of their lifecycles.” It also projects employment of power distributors and dispatchers will decline due to advances in smart-grid technology. The BLS specifically notes, “Some dispatcher tasks, such as rerouting power during an outage, lend themselves to automation.”
Yet, despite the declining employment, the BLS expects about 3,200 job openings for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers each year, on average, over the next decade. It says all of those openings will result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or exit the labor force, such as through retirement (Figure 1). Furthermore, not all distributors and dispatchers can be eliminated, some will be needed to manage the complex electrical grid.
1. People have been lamenting the power industry’s aging workforce for what seems like decades; yet, reports still suggest a significant percentage of workers will retire in coming years. Source: Envato Elements
The prospects for mechanical engineers, and electrical and electronics engineers, are better. The BLS predicts employment will grow 2% and 3% for them, respectively, from 2021 to 2031. But with so many industries vying for their services and vast job options available to young engineers, including in research and development, manufacturing, telecommunications, and the federal government, it can be difficult to entice them to join the power sector, which is often perceived to be a boring and stagnant field. Of course, those of us in the industry know that is not the case, but we’ve got to do a better job of spreading the word.
So, what can a manager do to find and attract top talent? Partnering with local schools to develop sound training programs and making early connections with students can help. Offering summer internships to some of the students and ensuring staff engage positively with the eager young recruits can also be important. And never underestimate input from your existing workforce—some of the best candidates often come as referrals from current employees.
Another proven strategy is making reliable connections with recruiting firms specializing in the placement of technical workers. The military is also a great place to look for well-trained, reliable, and disciplined workers.
Utilizing a Talent Acquisition Firm
One example of a recruiter that has helped power companies is Orion Talent, a firm headquartered in Cary, North Carolina. It has been helping employers fill roles with what it says are “the right people and the right solution, powered by a diversity-rich network of highly sought-after candidates.” Orion Talent has maintained a keen focus on helping place ex-military personnel in new jobs and finds employers are generally very pleased with their hires. In fact, Orion Talent was recently named to Inc. magazine’s 2022 Best in Business list in the Enduring Impact: 15+ years category, specifically for the impact it has had on military veterans (Figure 2) and spouses.
2. Discipline is one of the attributes military veterans bring to the civilian workforce, but they also often have extensive technical training and other valuable skills. Source: Envato Elements
“This is an incredible honor for Orion Talent to be recognized for our long-lasting impact,” Sarah Peiker, the company’s CEO, said in announcing the achievement. “Over the last 31 years, we have matched hundreds of thousands of job seekers with careers while supporting the amazing communities we serve. I am proud to lead the charge as we continue to illustrate what it means to be people with purpose.”
Andy Pero, operations manager with Orion Talent, told POWER that the company’s staff really focuses on “the match.” He said, “We’re not a numbers game. We really spend a lot of time getting to know candidates and making sure we understand their drivers. And vice versa on the account side. We really try to get to know our companies and find out specifically what they’re looking for, and challenge them a little bit. Because, obviously, if we were to ask 100 different managers what they’re looking for, most of them would say they would like some industry experience post military. We’ve had to mold that sort of mindset to get them to open up to people coming straight out of the service.”
An example of a successful placement facilitated by Orion Talent is Rebecca Dolce. Dolce is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, who spent more than five years in the Navy.
“On my first ship, I became the electrical officer, and with that, I was certified as the electrical safety officer. So, I was in charge of all the electricians; all the electrical work on the ship; and managing, maintaining, and correcting all the other issues,” Dolce explained. “When I transferred to my second ship, I was every type of engineering officer. So, I started off as the main propulsion officer, then I went to the auxiliaries officer, then I was the electrical officer once again, and then I was the repairs officer. So, that was very interesting having to learn all the different aspects of how the ship works on the engineering front on my second ship—and it was a bigger platform, so there was always work to do and always things to learn.”
The process of finding a job after leaving the military wasn’t without some hiccups for Dolce. She started out working with another hiring group, which didn’t result in a job. After talking to a friend who had found success using Orion Talent, Dolce contacted them, and by her second hiring conference, she had an offer. Dolce was hired by FTC Solar and has been with the company since March 2020.
“I like my job,” said Dolce. “I’m a product documentation engineer for the company and I work with building all the manuals that are customer facing—so, installation manuals, operations and maintenance manuals, material handling manuals, commissioning manuals, integration manuals—I create all those. I tailor them all to the different projects according to the bill of materials and the setup.”
Pero said people coming out of the military have a lot of options. For example, with Dolce’s background, she could have found opportunities in technical sales, manufacturing, construction, and even finance. “There’s so many different things,” he said. But to really be successful, he suggested candidates must do their research and know about the industry they’re trying to get into.
Careers in Power
Another great place to post and find jobs is in POWER’s Career Center, which can be found online at jobs.powermag.com. As of Jan. 6, 2023, there were 1,666 employers and 8,746 job seekers registered on the site. There were also 4,172 resumes that had been uploaded to the Career Center. Among the 407 open job postings at the time were positions with Calpine, RWE Renewables, PIC Group, Schneider Electric, Fluor, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Tennessee Valley Authority, Princeton University, Ørsted, Basin Electric Power Cooperative, TerraPower, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), NAES Corp., Mission Regional Medical Center, and many more.
POWER also deploys an e-letter on Tuesday each week that features recently posted job openings from the Career Center. In early January, the e-letter was being delivered to more than 100,000 subscribers. Job seekers can also create job alerts that trigger a notification on a daily or weekly basis of newly posted job openings in categories that they select, such as job title, location, plant type, and more. Meanwhile, employers can search the resume bank for candidates that are looking for jobs but may not have seen their job openings and applied.
There are other resources available on the site to assist candidates in their job searches as well. For example, there are links to online articles written by certified human resources professionals, executive coaches, and resume writers. Topics covered include such things as personal branding, career growth, interviewing, and networking. There is also an area where users can get insight on selected occupations, including the job outlook, education requirements, and wage projections, among other things.
Finding and retaining the best employees can be a challenge, but with the right tools and partners, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.