Ex-Soldiers Recruited by U.S. Utilities for Clean Energy Jobs

Facing a labor shortage, five of the nation's biggest utilities have signed on to recruit veterans into renewable and traditional energy jobs

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Solar thermal installation/Credit: The Wild Center

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America’s electric power industry is angling to get some of the 200,000 troops that return annually from active duty to take on the bevy of jobs needed to lead the transition to a clean energy economy.

Five of the nation’s biggest utility companies have signed on to develop Troops to Energy Jobs, an initiative unveiled this summer by the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD), a nonprofit industry consortium in Washington, D.C.

“There have been flavors of military in the CEWD’s efforts over the last five years, but this is really the big push,” Ed Legge, a spokesperson of the program on behalf of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), told SolveClimate News.

The ramped-up drive to get more veterans into clean and traditional energy jobs comes as nearly 250,000 technicians, engineers, line workers and plant operators are expected to retire or leave the workforce by the end of the decade, according to CEWD.

A June 30 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that between 30 to 40 percent of the country’s 400,000 jobs in electricity generation, transmission and distribution could be available by as early as 2013, largely because of retirements.

At the same time, transitioning active-duty troops, reservists and guardsmen who have served since Sept. 11, 2001 face higher levels of unemployment than non-veterans across the country.

“This isn’t good for veterans — or our economy,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement on the Troops program.

“While many veterans are looking for jobs, many energy companies are looking for skilled workers” as they upgrade aging electric infrastructure, boost energy efficiency and develop and deploy renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power, he said.

“To compete in the global clean energy race … we need to diversify our electricity portfolio to rely on a broad set of energy sources,” he said. “All of this will require skilled workers.”

The CEWD was formed in 2006 by electric and natural gas utilities, unions and trade associations like EEI to ensure a pipeline of qualified workers ahead of anticipated labor shortages. Its member utilities account for roughly 75 percent of all U.S. electricity production.

Legge said that Troops to Energy Jobs is the center’s largest initiative yet and is its first concerted effort to reach out directly to America’s service members.

“Troops to Energy jobs is the outgrowth of what CEWD and [utility] companies have already been doing,” he said.

The program will run as a pilot for the first two years as participating utilities cull ideas to develop a national model for attracting, training and employing veterans in the U.S. electrical sector.

Legge added that the utilities are still “connecting the dots” on how to carry out their vision and have not yet set a target for the number of potential participants.

Pilot participants include Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power; Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Resources; Atlanta’s Southern Company; San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Company; and Phoenix’s Arizona Public Service.

Thomas Farrell, president and CEO of Dominion and EEI’s chairman, said that veterans’ extensive military training gives them the strong work ethic and leadership skills ideal for high-pressure energy positions.

“Those transitioning from the service are safety-focused, disciplined and civic-minded — qualities the energy industry needs to meet its workforce demands and build, maintain and operate infrastructure,” he said at the initiative’s July 11 launch.

Robert Powers, the CEWD chairman and president of AEP Utilities, said in a statement that “many veterans may have some of the skills and background already needed for starting a successful energy career, but they might not realize these opportunities exist nor have the information they need to navigate the system to find the right fit.”

The five utilities will start to bridge that gap by taking clues from their own existing efforts, such as PG&E’s PowerPathway program. Working with community colleges in California, the power company so far has prepared more than 100 veterans for entry-level jobs in the electricity industry.

AEP offers job incentives for its employees in the military, including pay differential and benefits for reservists and National Guard members called to active duty, plus a 10-day leave to spend time with family heading to or returning from service.

Joe Cisneros, AEP’s director of workforce diversity, told SolveClimate News that the utility will partner with veteran outreach organizations to carry out its leg of the pilot project at a yet-to-be-determined location within its 11-state service territory.

He added that AEP already has training alliances with vocational and technical schools across those states to prepare students for positions as mechanics, equipment operators and technicians. The programs could also serve to train veterans for the Troops initiative.

“Many veterans have developed transferable skill sets and gained experience during their military career that allows them to easily transition into our industry,” Cisneros said via email.

Some 2,500 of the power company’s nearly 20,000 employees left in May 2010 under voluntary separation plans as AEP and most eletric utilities were hit by reduced energy demand and higher fuel prices during the global economic downturn.

“As the economy bounces back and more employees get ready to retire, we want to make sure we can replace them with the most qualified people we can and that includes veterans,” he said.

Nationally, Troops to Energy Jobs will leverage resources from the Department of Energy, including its National Training and Education Resource. Educators and employers can use the online curriculum to complement hands-on training for jobs in energy, green buildings and weatherization.

The DOE’s smart grid workforce initiative has also allotted nearly $100 million and leveraged $95 million more in private funding to train 30,000 Americans to implement smart grid technologies nationwide.

As part of that program’s Power4Vets arm, Bellevue, Wash.-based IncSys has developed real-time simulations for training smart grid operators and is covering the cost of the program for all accepted student veterans.

“There are people coming out of the military with the same work ethic, with some of the same skills and with the same pride in what they do” as the electric sector, EEI’s Legge said.

“The whole idea is … how do we identify them, locate them and direct them?”