NSTAR Goes Head-to-head with the Aging Workforce

By John M. Powers, contributing editor

If you work for a utility and you’re reading this at work, could you do something that’ll only take a second? If you’re in your cubicle, you might need to stand. Look to your left. Look to your right. Now look behind yourself and then straight ahead. You’re probably looking at one of the biggest threats to reliability and the future of the industry.

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You’re not looking at the old infrastructure or congested transmission lines. You’re not looking at climate change or rising demand. It’s the aging workforce, and some argue that if utilities don’t figure out their workforce problem, then most of the industry’s other problems won’t be solved.

Most of those folks around you, and maybe even you, will retire in the next five to 10 years. The problem isn’t just that the people with the experience and expertise will be retiring, but when they leave their desks for the last time, there might be no one to take their places.

The industry has talked about it, worried about it, and now it’s moving on it.

Before you stop reading because you’ve heard the doom-and-gloom drum beat already, learn how one utility is combating the problem.

Background

First, we need to frame the problem. Wanda Reder is vice president of the power systems services division at S&C Electric Co. and president of the IEEE Power and Energy Society. She’s been outspoken about the need to act immediately on the aging workforce problem. In 2007, The Center for Energy Workforce Development, a nonprofit consortium of utilities and associations, released a study.

“Forty-six percent of the jobs occupied by engineers in the power sector could be eligible to be vacated in the next five years,” Reder said. “All of the segments within power are facing a similar dilemma.”

Losing nearly 50 percent of engineers and around the same percentage of the labor side of a utility–such as linemen–is no small problem. So what caused the problem?

It was several things.

“There was very little hiring for the last 15 years due to mergers and acquisitions and right sizing “. Through that period the education infrastructure started to dwindle. If you’re not hiring, guess what? People go elsewhere. Those that have been teaching retire, too, and they’re not necessarily replaced,” Reder said.

In addition, Reder said there’s not as much college student interest. They see utilities as a static industry, as if nothing new is happening. As anyone in the industry knows, that’s a faulty perception, considering smart grid technology advancements.

Advancements in power make replacing engineers more complex, Reder said.

“You start thinking about smart grid and some of these emerging technologies, and I think that adds a dimension–a complexity–that we really haven’t had in the past,” she said. “So one of the challenges in looking at this whole scenario is that you can take a snapshot of where we are today and look at what we’ve had in the past … but what [that] doesn’t get at is the needs we will have in the future. When it comes to the new technology and the integration of systems, we’re just entering into a world where we’re doing things different than we have before.”

While the industry faces losing nearly half its workforce, the workers replacing them will need different skills.

The complexity that new technology adds, however, can help utilities, Reder said. She said the industry suffers an “image quandary” because it seems like other tech industries, such as computers, are moving faster and are more interesting to the educated workforce. But now, she said, energy is getting more societal interest. She said the power industry must tap the interest of two segments: those entering college and those entering the workforce.

Rather than just talk about the problem, Reder and her colleagues at the IEEE Power and Energy Society started the Power and Energy Workforce Collaborative. The collaborative encourages employers, educators and government to work together to solve the problem through outreach to students in elementary through college. It ensures research is funded and revives engineering programs in universities.

Students must take enough math, get through high school, opt for college, go to college, choose applicable disciplines, graduate and start work at utilities, Reder said. After that, they’ll have to gain enough experience before adequately replacing industry veterans. The lead time is long.

NSTAR

Utilities also are trying to combat the problem. Massachusetts-based electric and gas utility NSTAR has started partnerships to solve their problem.

Christine Carmody, senior vice president of human resources at NSTAR, said that in 2004 NSTAR looked at its workforce and found it had what is by now a typical aging workforce problem.

“We were doing a lot of analysis and were seeing some trends and were concerned about particular categories of labor … that have long training lead times … [and] that require a high degree of specialization and technical aptitude and skills,” Carmody said. “We were trending up to 50 percent of key classifications of workers in electric operations and close to the high 30s to 40 percent of engineers that would be retiring.”

With that information, NSTAR wanted plans to replenish its workforce, Carmody said. At that point NSTAR could have jumped in on co-op programs that already existed, but it felt that acute pain in the operations side of its workforce and got creative. After the 2004 evaluation, along with Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and the union (United Utility Workers local 369), NSTAR started the Electric Utility Technology Program. Even in the first year it looked promising, Carmody said.

In 2004, 100 to 120 applications came in for the program. In the early days NSTAR was still trying to figure out the best places to recruit candidates and the right marketing angles to attract the best high school students. Now that the program has been around for four years, applications for the Electric Utility Technology Program have doubled, Carmody said.

Only 15 people will be accepted to the two-year program. There’s class work and laboratory training in metering, underground and overhead line work, substation maintenance and dispatch. Students also get credit for paid NSTAR internships during summer and winter breaks. At the end of program, students graduate with an associates’ degrees in science and are qualified to be overhead linemen.

“Because we’ve had the openings and the need, we’ve been able to make offers to those candidates that have successfully fulfilled our requirements,” Carmody said. “People are basically making it through the program. The attrition rate is very limited, so we have hired 22 people so far of 29 that started the program.”

NSTAR expects to hire another 30 or 31 linemen from the 31 enrolled students who are scheduled to graduate in 2009 and 2010.

The Bunker Hill program already has plans of broadening its scope to train other needed workers such as underground line workers and substation personnel.

It’s not just NSTAR’s operations side hurting; there is a drain coming on from the engineering side, as well, Carmody said. As a result, NSTAR has started a program with the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology to prepare students for engineering and electrical design careers. NSTAR’s engineering managers, the union and engineering department at the institute have developed a course of study consistent with what a young NSTAR engineer would encounter.

They’re collaborating with the engineering department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). A young engineer going to work for NSTAR would have the option of getting a certificate in power systems technology through an onsite program taught by instructors from WPI. If engineers want to earn further degrees, NSTAR will help with tuition.

“The program that we have with WPI is really exciting because one of the challenges we’ve had as a utility is trying to attract younger engineers out of college to come to this kind of a company,” Carmody said. “I think that, traditionally, younger engineers would look towards other kinds of companies–other kinds of industries–as more attractive than [utilities]. So this has really allowed us to put something out there as an additional offering for potential engineers.”

Young engineers get to further their education with a pool of other young engineers. Twenty young NSTAR engineers have used the WPI program to get their power systems certificates. Sixteen of those have earned master’s degrees in power systems, also through WPI, Carmody said.

NSTAR’s multipronged approach focuses on developing the talent it attracts.

“That’s really important to us as we look to, not just fill the pipeline with the right people, but also develop and retain them when they’re here,” Carmody said. “So we look at our whole workforce–all the talent that we have here–as a process and as a cycle. We work hard to acquire them, and then when they’re here, we’re working hard to develop and retain them so that they stay with us into the future.”

The true test of NSTAR’s or any utility’s efforts is with individual employees. Do they think that they’re getting a good deal? Do they think they have room to grow and work for a company that wants them to stick around?

Jason Moore, 29, is originally from Trinidad. In 2005, he wanted to get an engineering degree but heard through a friend about the Bunker Hill program. He thought it would be a good way to get his foot in the power industry door. Moore started the program with 14 others, 11 of whom (including him) graduated. All graduates, subsequently, got NSTAR linemen jobs.

Moore said the program prepared him well. His Bunker Hill training has allowed him to work safer, more efficiently and has offered him practical knowledge plus the theory and understanding behind how things work in the field.

“It’s one of the best jobs that I’ve ever had,” Moore said. “This is what I wanted to do … and through the program I was given the best ability to get into NSTAR to perform as a lineman.”

He recommended the program to several friends and has seen co-workers become more motivated to go back to school.

Moore began pursuing an engineering degree in January at Northeastern University in Boston, and NSTAR is helping with tuition. The NSTAR approach will keep him with the utility because Moore thinks he can progress in the company, he said.

“This is one job … where I feel like I’m a doctor in my own way …. People need energy to live and survive and this is one way [of] contributing to society by trying to provide an efficient energy source to them,” he said.

Nothing will make a solid workforce magically appear when the veterans retire. It’s going to be a problem utilities must fight for at least the next five to 10 years. The solution from NSTAR’s perspective is this: Where there is no replacement workforce, we have to make one. It’s simple, but it’s the sort of thinking that will capture the Jason Moores of the world to make sure there’s someone there to keep the lights on.

IEEE Report Highlights Workforce Solutions

In response to concerns about the power and energy engineering workforce and the education system that supports it, the U.S. Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative, led by the IEEE Power & Energy Society, has developed a plan. The plan is published in a 14-page report, “Preparing the U.S. Foundation for Future Electric Energy Systems: A Strong Power and Energy Engineering Workforce.” The report advocates immediate action to:

1. Double the number of graduate and undergraduate students completing electric power and energy engineering degrees.
2. Provide $4 million in annual funding for undergraduate power engineering scholarships.
3. Create 2,000 internship and cooperative opportunities for electrical engineering students.
4. Hire 80 new faculty members over the next five years to replace retiring faculty, to meet increased enrollments, and to broaden educational offerings.
5. Raise annual research funding of university power engineering research by up to $50 million per year over the next five to eight years.
6. Create five University Centers of Excellence to conduct research and education, while also working to increase interest and advance expertise in the power and energy engineering field.

On the Net: IEEE Power & Energy Society report: http://www.ieee.org/go/pes-collaborative

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