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Energy Industries, Old And New, Seek Workers as Labor Shortage Looms

Up to 40% of the 400,000 individuals employed by U.S. utilities are expected to retire or leave by 2013, creating demand for a new generation of workers

By Maria Gallucci, SolveClimate News

Jul 14, 2011
Engineer examines settings inside the yard of an electric substation

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.

(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 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Already, mechanical gauges and meters have been replaced by digital devices with USB ports at the county's gas-fired power plant — the largest in North Carolina — and its two substations, McInnis told SolveClimate News.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 by the Task Force on America's Future Energy Jobs at the .

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.

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