The soon-to-retire employees would take with them valuable and hard-to-replace technical trade skills. Relay technicians, specialty power company welders and nuclear power plant operators require three to four years of formal training plus on-the-job experience before they are ready for the positions.
Ramping up hiring wasn’t feasible because too many employees could retire all at once. New Jersey’s job market was highly competitive, and utility jobs weren’t even on the radar for most young people. Candidates who walked through PSEG’s door lacked basic math, science and work-readiness competence, to say nothing of the highly technical skills the company needed.
PSEG’s solution was to partner with Mercer Community College to establish a program of in-class instruction, internships and on-the-job training in utility work. “We wanted to create the idea of working in energy as a career with good, high-paying jobs,” says Rosa Schmidt, employee engagement and outreach manager. “We picked community colleges in urban areas to increase diversity, since that’s the population we serve.”
Mercer Community College lacked courses for the new program. “We took five of our own internal PSEG training programs and had them approved for college credit,” says Margaret “Peggy” Pego, senior vice president for HR and chief human resources officer. “The college didn’t have the technical talent on hand for teaching, so it hired some PSEG retirees.”
Although there were some challenges in persuading the college to partner with PSEG, the bigger challenges initially were internal ones. Engaging PSEG’s technical training people in curriculum development sold them on the plan, but the field managers who would take on the interns and train them were tough. “We got the field managers to agree, but they took a wait-and-see attitude,” Pego says.
Fortunately, the initiative had a big stick in the form of Al Koeppe, then-president of Public Service Electric and Gas, PSEG’s regulated utility. “He was very aware of the challenges, and he became our internal champion,” Pego says. Then the problem evaporated. “The first group of students was so dynamic that everyone wanted them,” she says. Since the program started at Mercer Community College with 10 students, four more community colleges and four vocational high schools have joined it. More than 90 students are currently enrolled. “We have limited enrollment to 48 students per year, and everyone wants expansion because of the wait lists of up to 20 students at every college each year,” Pego says.
To address the waiting lists, PSEG joined with government, education, labor and other utilities in July to form the New Jersey Energy Workforce Consortium. “We started the consortium to look at the workforce needs of the energy industry,” Pego says. “We’re hoping to leverage that so students have other options besides PSEG.” Thanks to the partnership, PSEG’s once-empty pipeline is full. The utility has hired more than 80 students from the program for technical trade jobs, and a half-dozen of those hires have risen to management.
For innovative collaboration with community colleges and high schools to address a potentially critical workforce shortage, PSEG earns the 2009 Optimas Award for Partnership.