Wheary: Need for utility workers is a problem and an opportunity

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Recent weather has shown how vulnerable we are -- not just in terms of susceptibility to nature's brute force, but also in terms of our workforce. In the days following superstorm Sandy, as well as after Tropical Storm Irene last year, thousands of crews from other parts of the state and country came here to help restore power and repair the system.

Though Long Island Power Authority chief Michael Hervey said this week that the sheer number of workers who arrived overwhelmed repair efforts, the stark fact is that experienced utility workers are an increasingly rare commodity. The average U.S. utility worker is close to 50 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Center for Energy Workforce Development -- a nonprofit consortium of electric, natural gas and nuclear utilities -- estimates that about 40 percent of the nation's energy workers will be retiring or otherwise leaving the industry by 2015. More than three out of five line superintendents -- the most experienced workers, who manage the construction, operation, maintenance and repair of electrical distribution lines -- are age 50 or older, according to a study by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

We cannot train replacements for these workers fast enough. The workforce development center's surveys find that energy companies are having a hard time finding employees with the needed skills. And as we know so well, our electrical system is complex, patched together, and extremely vulnerable to disruption of any sort. Though we talk in terms of an electrical grid, it's really more like a maze that in the best-case scenarios has only a few alternate routes around any given trouble spot.

Industry experts say that the most experienced workers know best which parts of the system are prone to fail and which are strongest. They know where infrastructure problems exist, where wires are old and frayed, where maintenance needs to be done and where it does not.

For this reason, experts and trade organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers agree that capturing the knowledge of experienced workers before they retire, and passing it on to the next generation, is imperative. Recruiting and training new utility workers to maintain the electrical system and to make the grid smarter and greener needs to become a major national priority.

Policy-makers have been taking some action on this front over the last few years. For example, about $100 million of the 2010 federal stimulus package was invested in teaching high school and college students about smart-grid technology or was given to utility companies to train displaced workers from other industries to assume line positions as part of the Preparing Occupations for Lineman Education (POLE) program.

But these efforts need to be better coordinated. They also need to be implemented on a larger scale and to be more forward thinking. Many utility jobs -- particularly the line worker roles that are so crucial -- require a mix of math, technical, spatial and people skills, combined with on-the-job experience (and lots of it). These skills take time to learn, but they aren't necessarily expensive to teach or to acquire. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the $100 million put into energy education as part of the 2010 stimulus produced about 30,000 new workers, a cost of about $3,300 per person.

When we talk about investing in education, we're often fixated on two- and four-year degrees rather than vocational training. Yet as with medical careers and other technical fields, students can gain employable skills and good jobs by taking alternate routes to job certification.

In New York, National Grid and Onondaga Community College run a utility worker certificate program that combines technology, math and science courses with on-the-job training. Graduates of the yearlong certificate program earn starting annual salaries of about $41,000. In New Jersey, PSE&G has been running its Energy Utility Technology Degree Program for nearly 10 years, working with local vocational schools and community colleges on a variety of levels.

We need to rethink the role that high schools, community colleges and utility companies themselves can play in getting more students interested in and prepared for utility careers. And we need to give them the resources to do more. There are successful models in place at the local level, where these groups are working together to fill employment gaps. There just aren't enough of them in operation.

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.

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