Power Industry’s Hunt for Skilled Employees

Imagine what’d be on your mind if you were attending the May 1-3 conference of the power industry in Chicago. Attendees at the Electric Power annual convention for nuclear, coal, gas, and renewable plant owners and operators, and other professionals, will sit through sessions on topics such as “Coal Combustion and Gasification Byproducts” as well as one on “Strategies for Improved Reliability and Profitability on Maintenance and Operation of Steam and Gas Turbines, Generators, and Exciters.”

Those minds will drift, though, to the big issue facing this industry: finding skilled employees.

“It’s a topic of some interest for quite some time, but it really has reached an almost crisis level or potential crisis level,” says David I. Johnson, executive director of the conference. “Unless something is done, several companies are risking losing 30% or more of their workforces.”

In addition to those coal and gas presentations, the May conference will include sessions on “workforce supply issues.” For the first time, there’ll be a career fair at the expo. Bechtel and Dynegy will be among those looking for employees.

Johnson cites two reasons for the problem.

1. The “graying of the industry.”

2. Hiring freezes and downsizing of the 1980s and 1990s. “In the power sector, you never earned a lot of money, but you never went bankrupt. Competition opened up about 15 years ago. Everybody was looking to trim, get more competitive. One of the results of that was basically hiring freezes. There’s a lack of new blood coming into the industry — a partially empty pipeline.”

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What’s needed: Welders, electricians, mechanics, operators. It’s a challenge because it’s not the sexiest field compared to a job at NASA or Google. “Computer-based industries have a lot of glamour,” he says. The power industry is much more reliant on high technology than in the past, but many jobs will still get you dirty.

Johnson says this is all hitting at a time when demand for labor is increasing. “Lights, electricity, computers, home appliances, commerce — a huge amount of power is needed domestically and globally.”

Companies in the industry are asking employees what it will take for them to stay. They’re tightening alliances with colleges and universities. They’re bringing back retirees. Everyone seems to have a different plan to cope.

Says Johnson, “Obviously, the lights will stay on, but it’s a very definite challenge for the industry. I don’t think anybody feels very comfortable at the moment.”

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