More than a third of the country's 400,000 electric utility employees are headed for retirement. That fact — plus the push to spur renewable energy use and upgrade to a smart grid — is producing a jobs bonanza for a fresh crop of electricity workers.
Recognizing the looming skills shortage, a growing number of universities and community colleges are crafting degree programs to train computer-age technicians who can handle both conventional and newer renewable energy systems.
Richmond Community College (RCC) in Hamlet, N.C., for instance, is teaming up with area utilities to develop a two-year associate's degree in utility substation and relay technology. The college will start training students this fall to operate and maintain the current and coming fleet of power plants and substations, where high-voltage electricity is converted to lower voltages and shipped for use.
RCC president Dale McInnis said the idea for the initiative came last year when Raleigh-based utility Progress Energy approached the school with concerns that entry-level hires need up to five years of training to become relay technicians — too slow a rate to keep up with its retiring workforce and the rapid shift from analog to digital controls.
Already, mechanical gauges and meters have been replaced by digital devices with USB ports at the county's gas-fired power plant — the largest in North Carolina — and its two substations, McInnis told SolveClimate News.
The state's community college board is expected to approve the program this week.
"We feel like we've got a program that will be stable and that will give many of our better students a great career path — one that is also recession-proof," he said.
"We've had headhunters contacting us from Charlotte, and we don't even have graduates yet."
Nationwide, about 30 to 40 percent of the 400,000 people employed in electricity generation, transmission and distribution are expected to retire or leave the industry by 2013, according to a June 30 report by the Task Force on America's Future Energy Jobs at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
At the same time, roughly 60,000 additional workers will be needed by 2030 to operate and maintain electric generation systems as new technologies such as wind and solar come online. In the near term, more than 90,000 people will be needed to deploy smart grid technologies.
McInnis said that after assessing the handful of electric training programs that exist nationwide, the 2,300-student school worked with Progress to develop a curriculum from scratch that combines rigorous math classes with hands-on technical training — and that can be constantly updated to reflect the advance of grid and transmission system technologies.
The college president said he expects around 15 to 20 students to enroll in the program this fall, though he hopes to have as many as 100 students on the relay technician track within five years.
'A Tough Challenge'
The Bipartisan Policy Center's June report is an update of its 2009 study and adds practical strategies to earlier recommendations for meeting the labor needs of the clean economy.
"It is a tough challenge," David Rosner, associate director of the center's energy project, told SolveClimate News. "You can't train the [clean energy] workforce until you have the demand. But this workforce isn't going to get trained overnight."
Rosner said the group opted to use the term "future energy jobs" over "green" or "clean" jobs in its report because of the overlap expected between the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries as utilities transition to a smart grid and cleaner electricity.
"Someone working at a coal plant could easily be working at a coal plant with carbon capture and storage. And a natural gas distribution engineer could also be working as a wind distribution engineer," he said.
In its report, the task force suggests that the U.S. energy and labor departments work with state or regional consortia of labor unions, community colleges and power companies to evaluate local industry needs.
Better workforce data collection and performance measurement tools would help assess progress in meeting those needs, it says. And creating industry-wide credentials and training standards would help companies to better assess the experience and skills of potential hires.
Finally, the report suggests an aggressive focus on improving math and science skills in K-12 education to avoid remedial training in post-secondary programs.
However, Rosner said: "This is also all contingent on a change in energy policy."
According to the report, uncertainty in Congress on carbon regulation "perpetuates uncertainties that threaten to undermine efforts to prepare for the energy workforce needs of the future, because it discourages the investment in the next generation of energy technologies and infrastructure that could ignite a wave of new job and career opportunities in the energy sector."
The report continued: "Interest in related training programs or professional degrees and opportunities to develop skills through apprenticeship programs will suffer accordingly."
New Jobs, Old Occupation
In the meantime, the utility line worker training program at York Technical College is attracting a steady stream of students.
For the past four years, the Rock Hill, S.C.-based school has partnered with North Carolina utilities Duke Energy and Pike Electric Corp., plus other area power companies, to develop a nine-week certificate program for specialized electrical line workers.
Ken Strickland, the program manager, said that several years ago, utility companies in the region predicted that they could lose up to 50 percent of their workforce due to retirement in the next five to 10 years.
After that, "the utility industry saw a need to start producing line workers in larger quantities than what had been in the past," he said. "A lot of utility companies might have hired but a couple of people a year, whereas now, a lot of them are looking at hiring 30 to 40 people a year or even more.
"The utility industry is an industry that does not have a big turnover in its workforce," he continued. "Generally when people go to work for one of the utility companies, they spend their whole career with that same company ... and there comes a day and time when [utilities] have massive retirements."
When that happens, "there are very few places in this country that you can actually go and train to be a line man," he said.
In York's line worker course, a class of about eight students works in a simulated environment to install utility power lines underground and connect and maintain lines by climbing poles. While the lines they train on come from traditional power facilities, they could one day be the same lines used to carry cleaner electricity.
Strickland said the entry-level program, which is offered five to six times per year, has attracted students from as far as Hawaii and inspired other technical colleges in the U.S. southeast to develop similar training tracks.
"There is a genuine need for people who are coming out of a program like this," he said. Similar efforts have recently ramped up in the state.
South Carolina in April joined eight other states in the Center for Energy Workforce Development initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative's year-old pilot project will focus on steering low-income young adults toward energy industry careers.