Powering the Community
April 20th, 2018 by Victoria Hampton

Planning Engineer Jimmy Vallejo never imagined working at an electric utility until Peace River Electric Cooperative hired him as an intern. He is now a full-time employee who enjoys the camaraderie of the utility.
Photo by Mark Sellers

Electric utility jobs fuel local economies and the nation

Electric utilities offer much more to their communities than instant gratification at the flip of a switch. Aside from supplying the lifeblood of our nation—electricity—the industry provides an asset crucial to the prosperity of every community: jobs.

Electric utilities bring working professionals in communities across the country competitive pay, a sense of community and stable career opportunities.

In 2017, the leading public power associations—the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Edison Electric Institute—joined forces to produce a study about the power sector’s economic benefits in the nation’s job market.

The report found nearly 2.7 million jobs across the United States are directly provided by the electric power industry, including employees, contractors, supply chains and investments. This creates a ripple effect, supplying more than 4.4 million additional jobs that support the industry.

In total, that is 7 million American jobs, or about 5 percent of all jobs in the United States, according to the public power associations’ report published by M.J. Bradley & Associates LLC.

“The direct jobs within the companies, cooperatives and municipally owned enterprises number just under half a million, and these are well-paid jobs,” says Paul Allen, senior vice president at M.J. Bradley. “The median annual wages for direct electric power industry employees were $73,000 in 2015. This is twice the national average.”

Many Options Available
Jobs available at utilities are diverse—from hands-on linework and system planning to accounting and management, says APPA Vice President of Education and Customer Programs Ursula Schryver.

On a local level, these positions are filled by neighbors, loved ones and residents who help local economies thrive.

“Public power utilities are unique in the electric utility space as they are community-owned and not-for-profit,” says Ursula. “This presents a unique opportunity for qualified individuals to work in an exciting and challenging field while supporting their community.”

A Chance to Stay Home
What does this mean for people looking for a job?

Take Gary McCaskill, a senior lineman at Escambia River Electric Cooperative.

In 1979, Gary started his career right out of high school as part of the right-of-way crew. He says a desk job was never in his plans.

Through classes and on-the-job training, he advanced to become a lineman while remaining in the town he has always called home.

“I was born and raised here, and anytime I go anywhere I know everybody,” says Gary. “It is just great working for people around here that you know. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else doing this kind of work.”

On average, electric utility employees work in the industry for more than 15 years, in careers that support their families and allow them to put down roots in their communities, according to the M.J. Bradley report.

In his 30 years at EREC, Gary says he has enjoyed learning about electricity and watching his utility grow, including upgrading from one bucket truck to eight.

Most of all, he says his work for the community has been rewarding.

When disaster strikes, Gary and his fellow EREC linemen answer the call for local residents, and occasionally travel to other utilities throughout the state to help restore power.

Five times, Gary has been deployed to other cooperatives, including Peace River Electric, Clay Electric and Choctawhatchee Electric.

“We do a lot of stuff for people,” says Gary, who adds that the community response makes him proud. “It is a good job knowing you get the lights back on.”

Next Generation Steps Up
When Gary retires, he will leave behind big boots to fill.

As baby boomers reached retirement age in 2010, the industry reeled. There was concern whether younger generations would step up to replace the professionals who had spent their entire careers building the electric utility industry into what it is today.

The fear was there would not be enough skilled labor to fill the technical positions required and being vacated at electric utilities.

That was eight years ago. Retirements and new recruitment are still big topics of conversation.

The Center for Energy Workforce Development’s 2017 survey reported that between 2012 and 2014, the number of employees with the potential to retire in the next one to 10 years declined 7.4 percent.

While the mass exodus may be slowing down, many utilities have put infrastructure in place to continue recruiting and training the next generation of workers.

Peace River Electric started an internship program as a possible succession plan for a retiring engineer. The internship introduced Jimmy Vallejo to opportunities in the electric utility industry.

Jimmy knew he wanted to be an electrical engineer, but he had not considered a career at an electric utility. With the help of his guidance counselor at South Florida State College, Jimmy landed the internship at Peace River.

Little did he know it would shape his future.

“As a student, I didn’t know what industry to get into,” says Jimmy. “Peace River was the first to reach out to me and give me the opportunity. I didn’t really look for anything else outside of that.”

Jimmy started his internship in 2015. He was hired as a full-time planning engineer when he graduated in 2017.

Jimmy now helps plan distribution service for subdivisions and redesigns new substations.

When it comes to on-the-job experience, Jimmy says his internship taught him the skills he needed to be a successful utility worker.

“They really didn’t teach anything like this in the classroom,” he says. “All this stuff I’ve been doing is new to me.”

Jimmy says an unexpected perk of working at Peace River Electric is the kinship among employees. He notes that fellow engineers at the cooperative embraced him.

“I think the people I work with really got me into this spot and made everything a lot easier,” says Jimmy. “Everyone in engineering are humble, God-loving people. They got me in there, and I want to stick with it.”

Job Diversity Attractive
For Jimmy, working at a utility is anything but mundane.

“I do something different every single day,” he says. “Just being able to do things differently and not being in the office everyday makes it feel like it is not just one job, it is a lot of jobs—and that is what I enjoy doing.”

The power industry is broad and complex, with many roles that require specialized skills and training. There are a variety of roles people can fill, reinforcing the vital role the industry plays in the local community.

“For small communities, the jobs in the electric industry are particularly important for several reasons,” says Paul of M.J. Bradley. “The power industry needs people to provide customer service and billing information. The power industry needs people to communicate with the public. The power industry needs accountants and economists, and it even needs lawyers. Taken together, these skills provide the backbone of the economy everywhere and contribute to the base of knowledge and stability in every community.”

Depending on the size of the community, many utility workers become well-versed in a wide range of skill sets. This can be a result of new positions coming available to meet new needs. In other situations, utility workers take on new responsibilities.

Advancement Potential
For Jason Richards, a new position at Florida Keys Electric Cooperative meant a way to expand his skills and better serve his community.

Jason started on the right-of-way crew right out of high school 27 years ago. When a utility forester position was proposed at Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, Jason pursued it even before it officially came into existence.

“FKEC redid the work chart, and it was a job that was going to come open eventually,” says Jason. “I went ahead and prepared for the certification so I could be ready for the job.”

Jason became a certified arborist and, as he says, “the rest is history.”

His daily work includes supervising utility crews and communicating with members about trees that need to be removed. During his 14 years as utility forester, Jason has refined his workflow to better serve those in the utility’s service territory.

“Most of the houses here are on small lots, and trees play a crucial role in the landscape,” says Jason.

Recognizing this, Jason and his team started the Trade-a-Tree program. FKEC removes a problem tree and plants a suitable native species tree on the property—one that will not interfere with power equipment.

Planted in appropriate areas, these trees also help members improve energy efficiency.

“We are very community-minded, and we’re really invested in our community down here,” says Jason.

Pursuing the Successors
After spending his entire career at an electric utility, Jason says he enjoys educating high schoolers about the benefits and opportunities of working at an electric utility.

“I talk to the students in schools because I was in their boat,” says Jason. “I didn’t want to go to college. I tell them that if you’re not looking to go to college, this is an industry that has openings. You can make a good living for your family.”

In reflecting on his career, Jason notes the rewarding work and the people he gets to work with. He considers them family.

“We’re all the same community,” says Jason. “Whenever someone needs help, we’re there. It just feels good to be able to help somebody.”

Whether an employee is just starting out or has spent their entire working career at a utility, what is never lost is the sense of community that powers the industry.

Public power utilities are designed to serve the community and employees with stability and opportunity.

“I think the most important thing about public power utilities is their motivation,” says Ursula of the American Public Power Association. “They strive to provide safe, reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible power to their customers. They are motivated by service—not profits.”