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A Perfect Storm for Electric Utilities

June 20, 2008
Related Topics: Workforce Planning

Although the anticipated wave of baby boomer retirements is a concern for most every industry and business, it’s even worse for the electric power industry.

    Nearly half of the critical positions in the industry are filled by people who could retire within five years.

    "On average, our workers are about four years older than the average population, so the boomer retirements will hit us sooner," says Mary Miller, president of the Center for Energy Workforce Development, an industry organization that comprises the Edison Electric Institute, the American Gas Association, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Rural Cooperatives Association.

    Not only does the industry have a worse age problem than most, but it also has image issues.

    "The problem with power engineering [the electrical engineering discipline specific to electric power operations] is that it’s an old subject," says Peter Sauer, the Grainger chair professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. "In electrical engineering, if you’re not on the cutting edge of technology, you’re in the old days."

    The image problem is even more acute when it comes to critical trade and operational positions, such as line workers, pipe fitters, pipe layers, plant operators and technicians. These are traditional blue-collar jobs, generally scorned by high school guidance counselors, parents and teachers.

    "We’re also heavily dependent on skilled trades," Miller says. "All the educational and financial incentives are focused on sending students to college, not into the trades. No one wants their kid to be a lineman. Yet, of the kids who start kindergarten, less than 20 percent will finish college. For the rest, we’re not doing a good job of serving them."

    Electrical power itself isn’t cool, either.

    "Electricity is taken for granted. The people we hold up as examples are Mark Zuckerman, the founder of Facebook, or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs," says Kevin Cullather, the director of education for the American Public Power Association. "Today, kids who are good at math go into accounting. Engineering students are from abroad, and they go home after they get an education."

    Add to this the Census Bureau’s projected population growth of 23 percent by 2030 and the Energy Information Administration’s projection of a resulting increase of 40 percent in the use of electric power by the same year. Cambridge Energy Research Associates has forecast that the necessary new generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure will cost $900 billion during the next 15 years.

    Critical skills shortages are already commonplace in the industry, and no one has yet estimated, at least publicly, how many new engineering and skilled technical and trade personnel will be needed to design and build the new infrastructure.

    "We have a perfect storm in the industry," Miller says.

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