Powering the Community
April 25th, 2018 by Victoria Hampton

Mark Ahsoak II found a career in his community as a utility plant operator thanks to Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative.

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.
“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 Ben Frantz, who for the past 19 years has been general manager at Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative. Ben has worked in Ukpiagvik, Alaska—formerly Barrow—since 1971. Most of his career has been spent at the multi-utility cooperative, which supplies electricity, water and gas to Ukpiagvik and neighboring villages.

For Ben, the utility offered him a chance to stay in the community and build a career.

“There are decent wages up here and a lot of opportunity for people to support their families,” he says.

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.

“Our community recognizes that this is a really good place to work,” says Ben.

Ukpiagvik is no ordinary community. Located in the northernmost reaches of Alaska, it has a population of about 4,300. With unrelenting daylight in the summer and total darkness in the winter, it offers a lifestyle like no other.

“It is a challenge to recognize the elements as something that does contribute to a close-knit community with a lot of culture locally and a lot of diversity,” says Ben. “Folks have come up and made this their home from faraway places.”

While 64 percent of the population is Alaska Native or part Native, Ben says people from Texas, Samoa, the Philippines and Pakistan call Ukpiagvik home.

For the 60 employees at BUECI, the utility offers a chance to remain in the community and thrive.

“Working at Barrow Utilities means providing services for the entire community,” says Ben. “We offer citizens the opportunity to support themselves and their families. It is sustainable and a consistent career.”

Next Generation Steps Up
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 by 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.

BUECI offers six to 10 internships a year. In 2004, Mark Ahsoak II was one of those interns. He learned under the tutelage of senior utility plant operators at the utility’s water treatment facility and received valuable hands-on experience.

Mark—who grew up in the community—had not considered a job at the utility.

Once his internship started, he was hooked.

“I enjoyed it quite a lot being a summer hire,” says Mark. “I learned how the water was cleaned before being given to the public and thought it was the coolest thing.”

The on-the-job experience prepared Mark to take the state certification to work full time in the water treatment facility. For the past 11 years, he has been a utility plant operator.

“The (work) hours allow me to hang out with my family,” Mark says.

A Chance to Return Home
While working at the utility allows some people to remain in their community, utility jobs also give people the chance to come home.

Shawna Snyder moved back to Walla Walla, Washington, from Kansas City, Missouri, to work at Columbia REA. She became the utility’s member services and communications specialist in September 2017.

Shawna previously worked in the banking industry. She wanted to make a move away from the corporate world.

“What is really neat is how tightknit it is,” Shawna says of the cooperative. “It builds the camaraderie that you don’t get everywhere, especially coming from a corporate background.”

Her career change came with a learning curve. Yet true to the cooperative utility culture, Shawna was not left to sink or swim. Fellow employees made sure she met with department heads to learn how different roles operated, from engineering to the warehouse.

“They showed me what the different parts are to put the pieces together and figure out how the utility functions,” says Shawna.

As she nears her one-year work anniversary, Shawna has a new appreciation for the inner workings of cooperatives.

“Public power is a great industry in terms of benefits and competitive pay,” she says.

Job Diversity Attractive
The power industry is broad and complex, with many roles that require specialized skills and training. There are a variety of roles to 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.

A utility communicator’s job responsibilities can stretch from posting about outages on social media and writing articles about new utility initiatives to addressing members’ requests at the front desk.

Big Bend Electric Cooperative Communications Coordinator Kelly Duggar has been in the industry for 12 years. Like Shawna, she came from a different background: hotel and restaurant administration.

“I didn’t go to school for this type of thing, but I learn a lot every day about electricity, about people and just everything that goes along with the industry,” says Kelly.

Day-to-day work from her Ritzville, Washington, office can involve communicating with members about outages, helping with billing questions or unraveling a technical inquiry about net metering.

“You know, I’d say it is scary and fun all at the same time,” says Kelly. “It’s a daunting task not knowing about something. On the other hand, it was a lot of fun figuring it out.”

Kelly is preparing to take the next step in her career. Her colleague, Manager of Member Services Dale Anderson, retires in June. Kelly’s new job will be a dual role, with member services added to her responsibilities as a communicator.

“Why hire another person if I can do it on my own?” Kelly asks.

Advancement Potential
Clint Woods had the same reaction when a geographic information systems position opened up at Graham County Electric Cooperative in Pima, Arizona.

“I first started working in the electric field as a meter reader simply because it was a dependable job with good benefits,” says Clint, who has worked in the industry for 12 years. “The desire to continue working in it came from knowing it was a growing field which would provide many opportunities to grow, learn and expand my skill set.”

To become the GIS/GPS technician, Clint had to take classes. He continues to pursue learning opportunities to help him better do his job.

Although Clint’s day-to-day work has not drastically changed, he now focuses on building and improving the GIS structure for the cooperative’s gas utility.

“I want to learn more to improve my workflows and expand my understanding of how to best harness the technology available,” he says.

Clint says the fundamental qualities of the industry have helped him grow his career.

“It is a field that the basic theory doesn’t change, but technology is constantly providing more efficient ways to do it,” says Clint.

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.”