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Utility firms turn to colleges for help

Utilities are turning to colleges to help train replacements for a wave of retirements expected in the next decade.
Lineman apprentice Jon Odom, 22, of Farmington, Ark., stands beside transformers at Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corporation in Fayetteville, Ark., on Dec. 9.April L. Brown / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jon Odom was an apprentice at an Arkansas electric cooperative, on his way to becoming a full-fledged lineman within several years, when he left to go to college.

Odom, 22, now attends Arkansas State University and is getting paid his regular wage of $13.24 an hour by the utility, which is also picking up his $3,000 tuition tab. The year of classes are designed to speed his lineman training and, his employer told him, could make him a better candidate for management.

"Another guy might not get that opportunity because he doesn't have that school background," Odom said.

Classes began this fall for Odom and 11 other students, covering everything from pole climbing and driving a bucket truck to handling wires and transformers. Students attend for two semesters, and can use the credit toward an associate degree.

Young trainees like Odom are becoming increasingly valuable in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and other states as utilities face a wave of retirements of linemen and power-plant workers in the next four to five years. To train replacements faster and cheaper than traditional in-house apprenticeship programs, many utilities are turning to colleges and universities for help.

The aging work force can be traced to a sharp drop in employment by the electric power industry, from 550,000 in 1990 to 420,000 today, according to federal labor statistics. The decline slowed turnover and reduced opportunities for young trainees. As a result, many utilities slowed or stopped costly apprenticeship programs.

Now, some utilities are sending recruiters to high schools and taking other steps to prepare for the retirement of up to a third of their line workers by the end of the decade.

Union leaders and industry watchdogs say the work force changes are the product of a hiring freeze by utilities as they adapted to deregulation. Industry officials, however, say improving technology has diminished the need to replace retiring or departing workers.

Utilities say they can meet the demand with college trainees and rejuvenated apprentice programs, but union leaders say more must be done.

"I think it's a good first step, but I think they need to quadruple their efforts to bring people into these programs," said Brian McCarthy, the deregulation coordinator for the Utility Workers Union of America.

Preparing for the future
FirstEnergy Corp., which serves 4.4 million customers in three states, has begun two-year programs at colleges in Ohio and New Jersey.

In recent months, it also agreed to establish a program in Pennsylvania, at a still-to-be-chosen college, to replenish a shrinking force of line workers at its three state subsidiaries. The agreement was part of a settlement with state regulators, who were investigating outages that had dropped the subsidiaries' performance below state benchmarks.

"What partnering with a college or university allows you to do is to use their resources," said Scott Surgeoner, a FirstEnergy spokesman. "It allows you to ... look externally for people that are not current employees to do the teaching and the learning."

In Boston, NStar began a two-year academic program this fall at Bunker Hill Community College, with linemen and company officials going to high schools to recruit trainees. The average age of the company's 250 linemen is about 49, and nearly one-third are expected to retire in the next few years, a union official said.

"Instead of employing someone who is not productive for two years, we're sending them to school for two years," said Tom May, chief executive of NStar, Massachusetts' largest investor-owned electric and gas utility with almost 1.4 million residential and business customers.

At FirstEnergy's Pennsylvania units, Pennsylvania Electric, Pennsylvania Power and Metropolitan Edison, which serve 1.3 million customers, the number of line and substation workers declined from 905 in 1999 to 752 last year. In addition, no new linemen completed the four-year training in the last five years.

FirstEnergy is faced with replacing a work force at the three utilities in which 20 percent of linemen were 55 or older last year, while less than 2 percent, or nine total, were 29 or younger.

At the San Onofre nuclear power plant, Southern California Edison's largest power producer, the average age of workers is 49. The plant has begun talking to high schools and colleges about teaching courses that would help prepare students for industry jobs, and may also add financial incentives to keep some older workers on the job longer, plant spokesman Ray Golden said.

In Arkansas, 17 electric cooperatives set up the partnership with Arkansas State University to prepare for a wave of expected retirements among its force of 800 power workers, whose average age is 50.

For trainee Odom, who is part of that program, his stay has had one additional benefit: "I'm learning why something does what it does," he said, "instead of 'That's just the way we've always done it.' "