Calling All Ages
November 17th, 2011 by Kalie Eyman

Utilities strive to create diverse age groups in the workplace as employee retirements increase during the next five years

Darlene McLeod looks forward to her future office in West Oregon Electric’s new building in Vernonia, Oregon. Above, Darlene stands on the far left with her co-workers in the early 1980s when she started as an assistant at the cooperative. Photo submitted by Darlene McLeod

Darlene McLeod looks forward to her future office in West Oregon Electric’s new building in Vernonia, Oregon. Above, Darlene stands on the far left with her co-workers in the early 1980s when she started as an assistant at the cooperative. Photo submitted by Darlene McLeod

When Darlene McLeod started working for West Oregon Electric Cooperative 27 years ago, the focus of her job was much different than it is today. Despite the typical changes throughout the years, she says she still enjoys providing the best to members. The types of members involved in the co-op have different needs, and Darlene loves taking on new challenges.

But providing the best to the members at Darlene’s co-op isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

“When I first started here there was a huge member base who understood what a co-op was about, why it was formed and what it meant to be a member,” recalls Darlene. “Those members are gone, and the challenge today is to regain that loyalty and trust in our new members.”

Faced with new projects and building member loyalty, Darlene’s retirement date keeps getting extended. Since she started at the co-op in 1984, Darlene has worked in customer service, bookkeeping and billing. Now, as the manager of finance and administration, she looks back on her career throughout the years.

“When I was first brought on board, I had no idea how an electric utility operated,” she says. “But over the years, I have learned the technical and communication skills required for this business, and how the departments interact and flow.”

Older employees bring a level of knowledge and life experience that can only be attained through years of service, Darlene says.

The impending retirement of older employees throughout the utility industry may result in a shortage of workers in coming years. Most education systems don’t provide students with enough engineering focus and interest necessary to draw young generations into the industry, according to the Center for Energy Workforce Development. This can be due to lack of internships and scholarships to promote interest in the industry, and the need for more power engineering faculty to mentor students.

United Electric Cooperative in Heyburn, Idaho, recently replaced an employee who retired. Chris Seibold, who had no previous experience in the electric industry, was hired at the end of 2010. His background in customer service at FedEx Ground lead him to the key accounts manager position at the co-op.

Chris Seibold, who had never worked in the utility industry before, stands outside United Electric Co-op in Heyburn, Idaho. Photo by Curtiss Peterson

Chris Seibold, who had never worked in the utility industry before, stands outside United Electric Co-op in Heyburn, Idaho. Photo by Curtiss Peterson

“Every day is different,” Chris says, explaining why he enjoys his new job. “I wear many different hats in my position. I’m always involved in a variety of different projects.”

Some days, Chris works on an economic development project. Other days, he works on a conservation project. He values the variety.

“The employees have probably noticed that I do some things a little different than the last guy did, which is OK,” Chris says. “I think change is good for an organization.”

Despite their vast difference in experience in the electric co-op industry, Chris and Darlene agree on one thing: the need for a variety of viewpoints in the workplace.

This can be achieved a number of ways, as everyone has different backgrounds and experiences. But varying age groups are valuable to a dynamic workplace.

Darlene says younger employees usually bring more energy, new ideas and approaches to the table, while older employees offer valuable experience, insight and knowledge.

“We need all viewpoints,” she says. “That is the only way we can truly represent what is in the best interest for our members.”

In creating a diverse workplace, electric co-ops offer a variety of jobs. Office-related jobs are available in communications, accounting and billing. Outside jobs include the warehouse, linemen and staking engineers, who plot where new power lines will be built.

“Until I began working here, I didn’t realize how many different career paths one could take within this industry,” says Chris. “The opportunities seem to be endless out there.”

Darlene has found that to be true.

“If I have learned one thing, it’s that you have to be receptive to change, and that can be difficult,” she says. “The bottom line is, after working here for 27 years, I have a sense of loyalty to the company and responsbility to the members to do the best we can.”

Chris set his sights on a career in the utility industry after he heard about the job opportunities available at co-ops when he was in college. Both Chris and Darlene’s jobs come with a responsibility to members as well as concern for community.

“To me, it means the decisions we make as a co-op cannot only affect our members, but our community,” says Chris. “When policies or decisions are made, we consider the effect that it could have on everybody in our community and not just ourselves.”

The dedication of other co-op employees motivates Chris to plan a long-term career in the utility industry.

“The employees where I work are here to stay and don’t treat their jobs like just another place to get a paycheck,” he says. “It’s a career to them.”