Tips to Recruit and Retain Workers in the Utility Industry



At a time when business is booming, many utility companies are wondering where they’ll find the workers they need. But it’s more than just a matter of where. It’s also a matter of how.

West Monroe, a digital services firm whose competencies include organizational change management and talent strategy, published a study in 2019 stating that 70% of all younger workers would consider a job in the utility industry. That is great news. However, some utility companies may need to revisit their recruitment and retention efforts to make sure they have a chance of resonating with today’s changing workforce.

Outreach that broadens the pool

The cornerstone of effective recruiting continues to be local community outreach, namely high schools and colleges.

CM Labs Simulation training can help spark interest in a career as an equipment operator, as well as provide for career growth by making training easier, faster and safer. Photo courtesy of CM Labs.“It’s important to educate students, teachers and parents about the types of careers available in the utility sector,” says Christa Fairchild, Product Marketing Manager for CM Labs Simulations, a global equipment simulation provider.

As an example, one of CM Labs’ clients, the Missouri Public Utility Alliance, held a free bootcamp for high school graduates. The curriculum included safety, regulatory compliance, practical skills training, and the chance to network with potential employers. “For the practical training portion, participants engaged in hands-on and simulated exercises,” Fairchild says. “Through these types of initiatives, our clients are connecting with the next generation in truly innovative and effective ways.”

Duke Energy, one of America’s largest energy holding companies, has also stepped up its outreach to local educational institutions, along with other influential groups.

“We depend on a skilled and diverse workforce, and continually evolve our hiring practices to attract qualified professionals,” says Shawna Berger, Manager of Corporate Communications for Duke Energy. “Our key partners are four-year colleges, community colleges, and local and professional organizations that provide future talent with the skills needed to serve our customers, provide reliable electricity, and support our net-zero carbon future.”

Headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., Duke Energy provides services to millions of customers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky. Berger says the company is fortunate that there are numerous educational institutions across its jurisdictions, including historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

One of Duke Energy’s higher education partners is North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. The Center for Energy Research & Technology at N.C. A&T administers the STEPs4GROWTH program, which leverages education and apprenticeship programs to prepare students and young professionals from underrepresented groups for clean energy jobs.

“Additionally, the Duke Energy Foundation is focused on workforce development training for jobs that are vital to the energy economy as well as programs that support upward mobility,” Berger says. To that end, the Duke Energy Foundation has stood up lineworker training programs and other specialized training opportunities at community colleges with significantly diverse populations. The Foundation has invested nearly $3.1 million for the development of energy sector careers across Duke Energy’s jurisdictions.

“We want our workforce to reflect the communities we serve, and actively recruit diverse talent to widen our perspectives and spur innovation within our employee base,” Berger says. “To build this talent pipeline, we partner with HBCUs. We also engage other organizations like the National Urban League, Society of Hispanic Engineers, She Built This City, Road to Hire, American Association of Blacks in Energy, and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. In 2023, we strengthened our comprehensive HBCU strategy and engagement, and have campus liaison volunteer teams made up of 10 individuals who serve as champions for the HBCU campus initiatives and mentorship efforts.”

Tailored efforts are also being made in the specific area of powerline workers.

“Building the future electric grid and clean energy infrastructure means we have an increased need for skilled lineworkers,” Berger says. “We partner with 22 community colleges in Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida on lineworker training programs to help create that talent pipeline for the utility industry. Duke Energy supports these programs financially through grants and with the expertise of our local operations team members.”

Utility companies need a story to tell

Finding ways to make connections is the first step. Developing the right messaging is the second.

According to Ryan Cross, a Senior Practice Manager at Actalent Services, the utility industry is doing a more effective job at attaching itself to an important issue with the younger generation, climate change. That entails conversations around things like solar and other renewable energies, battery-electric vehicles, and the entire concept of energy transformation. Those types of things make the utility industry more exciting and appealing to the younger workforce, including the next generation of engineers.

Computerization is another key talking point. “The industry is far more computerized and advanced than it was 25 years ago,” says Cross, who oversees a team of 300 engineers, designers and staff that works to support clients with electric substations, transmission lines, transmission planning, field services and right-of-way services throughout the U.S. “These are the types of exciting things utility companies should be talking about to prospective employees.”

Offering flexibility and providing opportunity

When seeking to attract both new and existing talent to its specific organization, a utility company needs to be on par with wages and benefits. But it’s also about how a company can provide for a more enriching career experience.

“The types of projects an individual could work on can be a big factor,” Cross says. “Providing opportunity is also important. Many years ago, you were either a lineman in the field or an engineer in an office. Now people often want the opportunity to do different things. Maybe they could be an engineer for several years, and then have the opportunity to get into the field as a project manager. If they’re working for a utility, maybe they could get into the policy side of things. Offering these kinds of opportunities can be a big selling point. A person could work for the same company for many years, but not grow tired of the same job. Flexibility is important today and should be emphasized upfront.”Duke Energy is investing heavily in workforce development training for jobs that are vital to the energy economy, as well as programs that support upward mobility. Photo courtesy of Duke Energy.

Duke Energy has also placed increased emphasis on providing flexibility and opportunity.

“We have created a marketplace for employees who want to learn new skills,” Berger says. “They can work with their manager to embark on what we call a ‘gig assignment’ where they can learn a new skill, or maybe utilize a skill they already have but aren’t necessarily using in their current role. There have been instances where employees are hired into these new roles. Other times, it’s simply about learning something new.”

Remote work also ties into the concept of flexibility. Of course, this probably isn’t an option for a lineman or other person whose job is in the field. But for engineers and other professional services, the opportunity to work remotely is almost expected these days. “When you can offer some kind of hybrid work arrangement, that can be a great part of your sales pitch as an employer today,” Cross says.

Simulation sparks interest in equipment operation

Fairchild says equipment simulators attract a lot of attention and make for a great conversation starter. Thus, some of CM Labs’ clients are bringing portable simulators to career fairs, while others use CM Labs’ Mobile Training Center when visiting different venues. “Young people take very naturally to simulation and virtual training,” Fairchild says.

To that point, Fairchild says simulators also help attract attention during campus tours. “It looks high-tech, and it drums up excitement. We’re also hearing that simulation is being used in career and technical education (CTE) programs to attract young people,” Fairchild says.

Simulation is also an effective way to ease someone into working with heavy equipment, which can broaden the potential labor pool. Someone who comes from a non-construction background might be intimidated by stepping into a real machine. With simulation, they can get familiar with the controls and sensations of the equipment before trying out the real thing.

As Fairchild points out, safety and retention go hand in hand.

“According to one recent survey, almost half of workers would consider a pay cut if it meant working for a company with an excellent safety culture,” Fairchild says. “Simulation plays an important role in that, as it allows operators to practice scenarios that are simply too dangerous to practice on real equipment. They can feel what it’s like when the equipment tips, or make mistakes during training exercises without worrying about their safety.”

Simulation also supports career progression. Operators can use simulation to complete training exercises, prepare for certification exams, and take the next step in their careers. ElectriCom LLC, for example, uses CM Labs’ simulation to identify current employees who possess the raw talent necessary to become equipment operators.

Personal growth and career progression are important factors shaping the way today’s utility workers feel about their jobs, as well as prospective workers still deciding on a career. By providing opportunity and flexibility, and searching for talent in places that are sometimes overlooked, utility companies can begin recruiting a stable workforce for today, as well as tomorrow.

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