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Tech Hunt

July 30, 2008
Related Topics: Basic Skills Training, Candidate Sourcing, Retention, Featured Article, Staffing Management
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Hiring wind energy technicians is a relatively new occurrence for Portland General Electric. But the 118-year-old utility is no stranger to finding blue-collar workers for hard-to-fill jobs.

Historically, the $1.7 billion Portland, Oregon, utility, with 1.6 million customers and 2,700 employees, has had trouble finding qualified line crews and power plant operators. Even at vocational schools, such jobs are unknown quantities because "teachers, parents, students don’t know about them unless they have a family member in the trade," says Maureen Shaw, a PGE workforce planning supervisor.

As a result, the company’s HR staff has learned to plan ahead, pair up with educational institutions, support local industry groups and map out workers’ career development paths.

"You can’t just have a hiring session, hire a bunch of people and think you’re done," Shaw says. "You have to plant seeds. You have to have long-term steady relationships to have a steady pipeline."

The strategies Portland General Electric uses could serve as a blueprint for any company looking for technicians or other blue-collar workers in a competitive industry or building a labor force for an emerging business. Some of the strategies:

Support community college programs. Through its nonprofit foundation, PGE is donating $150,000 over three years to support Columbia Gorge Community College’s wind energy technician training program. The utility is helping another Portland-area community college develop a workforce readiness certification program for utility workers. That type of program attracts students who decided college wasn’t for them, worked, then came back to school "and are more mature and engaged," Shaw says.

Offer internships. PGE has run a summer intern program for 20 years. This summer, the utility has 90 interns from local colleges and universities, as well as local students who go to school elsewhere. "It’s been a real hedge for us, especially in engineering," Shaw says.

Team up with local vocational high schools. The utility has a longstanding relationship with Portland’s Benson Polytechnic High School, working with teachers and taking students into the field to show them what it’s like to work at a power plant. "We know that lives on at the school," Shaw says.

Sponsor career fairs. The utility co-sponsors an annual career expo that attracted 5,000 Portland-area high school students last year. The company also works with Oregon Tradeswomen, a local industry group, to put on a career fair each spring that draws thousands of high school girls from across the state to learn about technical and trade jobs. "We have three [utility] poles girls can climb and they can get up in a bucket truck," Shaw says. After underwriting the group for years, "it’s just now we’re starting to see women coming through training programs who are expressing interest in our trades," she says.

Focus on a few fruitful relationships. Portland General Electric has pared down the number of organizations it supports to a handful to focus on the relationships that have worked best. The company used to work with more "but we were spreading ourselves too thin and not getting results," Shaw says.

Be assertive. To combat the blue-collar stigma often associated with power company jobs, Shaw got Portland General Electric involved with a construction industry education association that’s opening a charter vocational school this fall in one of Portland’s low-income neighborhoods. Now one of the power company’s engineering managers is on the school’s board. "These things take time to develop, but when you’re there at the right time, it really makes a difference," she says.

Offer cross-training and career development. Wind energy technician jobs might be hot now, but what if eventually someone wanted to move up the company ladder from there? PGE tries to hang on to those workers by giving them broad exposure to other opportunities within the company. "The engagement and development pieces you have to constantly focus on," Shaw says.

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