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A Workforce Shock to the System

Facing a critical skills shortage, one Midwest regional transmission organization decided to grow its own staff after discovering it was competing for the same dwindling pool of mostly aging candidates.

June 20, 2008
Related Topics: Workforce Planning, Recruitment
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Regional transmission organization Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator first noticed in 2005 that it faced a serious staffing issue.

    The nonprofit organization composed of 108 members serving 15 states and the Canadian province of Manitoba, which operates the electric grid and ensures the reliable transmission of power, was having trouble filling critical operations positions. Yet just three years before that, the company, which has dual headquarters in Carmel, Indiana, and St. Paul, Minnesota, easily filled its staffing needs by the time it began transmitting electricity in February 2002.

    By 2005, however, an annual average attrition rate of 10 percent to 13 percent had created workforce gaps, especially among experienced operations and technical personnel. As the company advertised for these critical positions, it quickly became obvious that the entire industry was competing for the same dwindling pool of mostly aging candidates.

    It’s a common story today across dozens of industries as baby boomer retirements loom. But the energy industry in general and Midwest in particular did little hiring in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving both in worse workforce shape than other business fields.

    Mike Begley, Midwest’s manager for recruiting and workforce planning, realized the company could no longer rely solely on the job market to get the personnel needed for critical positions. Instead, Midwest decided to grow its own.

    For this new initiative, Begley came up with internships for college students, an on-the-job control room training program and a referral program that would reward employees if they recommended a candidate and the company hired that person for a critical position.

    By 2008, the Grow Our Own program had already produced several new technical employees for the company. The program now also includes a strong H-1B effort.

    In January 2009, Midwest will add a co-op component to the mix, partnering with several Midwest colleges in an expanded internship program. Midwest expects the initiative to generate one-third of all new hires.

College recruiting and internships
   The first step in the Grow Our Own program was an aggressive college recruiting drive at Midwestern schools that included power systems as part of their electrical engineering curriculum. Schools in Midwest’s 15-state region were targeted first.

    In 2007-08, however, the public utility also began recruiting nationwide. The goal is to bring in students as summer interns and, after they graduate, hire those who are qualified and interested. Eventually, Midwest hopes to hire 70 percent to 80 percent of its interns each year.

    "When we go to these schools, we focus on the power-system students in the engineering schools," says Wendy Weiler, intern and co-op coordinator. "We go into the classrooms, have lunch-and-learn sessions and bring engineers and former interns who give presentations to the students."

    Once selected, an intern is assigned a mentor, and the two create a learning contract that details expectations and goals. Then the project comes.

    "When an intern comes in, we ask him to develop a transmission-needs plan for the next three years," Begley says. "He’ll get the data, do an assessment and plan for the needs of the overall territory. It goes into the real five-year plan for transmission."

    Each intern participates in mandatory one-hour weekly training sessions that cover the industry and the company. The internships culminate with a 15-minute presentation to Midwest’s senior leadership.

    "The internship is worthy of college credit," Weiler says. "And the majority of students who can receive college credit get a co-op credit for it. This makes Midwest’s program attractive."

    Katie Hulet interned with Midwest in the summer of 2006, working on a transmission line planning project.

    "I was mapping out new assets for forecast planning needs to optimize the development and implementation of [power] generation and transmission assets," she says. Hulet got to use and troubleshoot new software. She even traveled to Houston to discuss needed changes with the developer.

    "I thought it was the best internship project," she says. "Very cutting edge, and [my work] would be used."

    Hulet graduated from Iowa State University in December 2006 with a degree in electrical engineering and went to work for Midwest in March 2007 as a transmission access planning engineer.

    "After the internship, I had my heart set on Midwest," she says.

    This summer marks the fourth year of the internships. Eight interns have been hired from each class, resulting in 24 new employees. Competition for previous internships was high, with 100 to 150 applicants for 30 openings. For 2008, however, the nationwide recruiting effort has paid off: Some 2,000 students applied for 41 positions.

Next Step
   Although Next Step (Needed Experience Transition via Standardized Training for Empowering Professionals) was conceived at the same time as the internship program, it didn’t start until March 2007. That’s how long it took for functional experts in real-time operations, training, human resources and application information services to develop the curriculum, projects, job descriptions and testing requirements for this on-the-job training program for control room operators.

    "The idea was to hire people with technical degrees and run them through Next Step for 12 to 18 months, training them on Midwest’s operations," says Roger Harszy, vice president of real-time operations, which translates as all responsibilities for the Carmel and St. Paul control rooms. He’s also one of the initiative’s executive sponsors.

    "We are targeting people with at least an associate’s degree in electrical engineering technology," Begley says. "But we want people with bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Interns are eligible for Next Step when they graduate."

    Since several Next Step members once were interns, they often function as mentors, providing new interns with exposure to the operations training program.

    Once hired, the Next Step operations associates study the curriculum at their own pace. The ultimate goal of the program for each associate is control room certification by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the organization responsible for ensuring the reliable operations of the electrical grid in the U.S. and Canada.

    "In March 2007, we started out with four operations associates," Begley says. "In October 2007, three out of four were hired in operations, and the fourth took over an engineering job."

    Three more operations associates started in Next Step in November 2007. In April 2008, all three had passed their NERC certifications and were being evaluated for control room positions.

    "Three years ago, we did have a lot of overtime for positions that went unfilled for months," Harszy says. "The internships and Next Step have mitigated about 50 percent of that."

    As for the other 50 percent, Harszy says the company is fully staffed and the attrition level isn’t a problem. Midwest employs about 700 people and is looking to add another 28 positions this year.

    Next Step has drawn attention outside of Midwest’s control rooms.

    "Other departments beyond operations are starting to get interested in bringing people in and learning at Midwest," says Jim Nichols, executive director of HR. "[They could] have their own cadre of in-house trained people."

Employee referral incentives and H-1B visas
   Two other elements of Midwest’s Grow Our Own initiative are an employee referral incentive program and an H-1B sponsorship effort. The incentive program generates about one-third of Midwest’s new hires, and the H-1B effort has contributed about 10 percent of the company’s total workforce.

    Every employee who submits the name of a possible job candidate receives a scratch-off card with a value of less than $5 that can be redeemed for a cup of coffee, a movie or a sandwich. "Every month we have a drawing for everyone who submits the name of a potential recruit," Weiler says. "The winner gets $300 whether we hire the person or not. If we hire, depending on the level and criticality of the hire, the employee can win $1,000 to $5,000."

    The power systems engineering and other technical skills Midwest needs in its H-1B visa employees are in short supply, since the annual allotment of U.S. government visas is gobbled up on the first day of availability. Although that’s bad news for the electric utility industry in general, in terms of acquiring H-1B visa employees, the designation makes it a lot easier.

    "We haven’t had trouble getting the slots we need," Nichols says. "We’re in an industry where we have those slots. About 10 percent of Midwest’s workforce, representing 23 nations, is on H-1B visas. Most of them are well on their way to green cards."

    H-1B visas are good for three to five years, depending on the job.

    "In that time period, we evaluate them to see if we want to help them get a green card," says Jim Schinski, chief information officer and head of HR. For one individual to progress from an H-1B visa to a green card costs $30,000 to $40,000, according to Midwest.

    "We have been able to sponsor the people we need," Schinski says. "That doesn’t change the fact that the process is broken. It takes years, and you never know where you are."

What’s next
    In January 2009, Midwest will launch a formal co-op program.

    "It’s an extension of the internship program, but students will be here for a whole semester or whole year," Weiler says. "We have to submit job descriptions to the schools for approval."

    Purdue University will be Midwest’s first co-op school, although up to 10 additional schools from Minnesota and Indiana may be added.

    "Since students will stay for a whole year, it’s easier to have [someone local]," Weiler says. "We will provide housing for out-of-state students."

    Although the internships and Next Step have helped ease workforce shortages in Harszy’s dual control rooms, he doesn’t think Midwest’s problems have been permanently solved.

    "In the long term, I think the operations workforce shortage will be a continuing problem," he says. "Programs need to be continued and expanded. From an engineering perspective, we need to work with universities to beef up their programs. Power engineering has declined, and computer engineering has grown to the detriment of power engineering. The industry must address this."

    Nichols sees long-term problems too.

    "Unless government agencies and industry groups pay serious attention to the science, technology, engineering and math shortages, we’re going to fall behind," he says. "It’s critical that people who are empowered to make funding decisions about science, technology, engineering and math understand the criticality of these skills. We need people to take serious steps to encourage young people to go into the sciences."

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