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Third of utility workforce reaching retirement age soon

Source: 
Times-Tribune

Jan. 29--Up to one-third of workers maintaining the state's power, cable and water lines could hit retirement age within the next 10 years.

That caught the attention of one man who for a living links employers' needs with schools training the future labor force.

William J. Schoen, director of Skills in Scranton, the workforce development arm of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, won a grant in the summer from electric utility PPL's charitable foundation to study workforce needs.

"As we started gathering data, we found not only in the electric utility, but in the other utilities, the statistics were similar," he said. "The aging workforce, in some cases 25 percent to 35 percent of the workforce, is age 55 and above and on the precipice of retirement."

The news doesn't necessarily come as a surprise to utility officials.

Providers across the board are ramping up recruitment to fill technician and engineering jobs as baby boomers age out of the workforce.

"There is enough work out there for several generations," said Joseph Swope, UGI Utilities spokesman. "I came here in '93 and it was soon after that we recognized that we were going to have a skilled technical workforce issue, and it's upon us now."

Gas utilities workers are busy connecting new customers to distribution lines, he said, and there's a nationwide push to replace aging infrastructure. That's all creating urgency to hire more.

"Add to that, all the work that's being done in the Marcellus Shale," he said, explaining technicians with welding and pipefitting skills are in highest demand.

For Pennsylvania American Water, more than 30 percent of the regional water utility's workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next seven to 10 years, estimated Christina Krommes, talent acquisition lead.

"That's just eligibility, that's not necessarily that they're going to go," she said.

She predicted water and wastewater treatment operator positions will see the greatest need for workers, as well as maintenance personnel who keep equipment running.

Alana Roberts, PPL's regional affairs director says the electric utility is focused on hiring engineers and field workers, including linemen and electricians, and expects those needs to continue into the future.

Mr. Schoen's unique position, working closely with each of Lackawanna County's 14 high schools lets him take utility operators' concerns straight to the educators and tailor curriculum.

Skills primarily will work with the Career and Technology Center of Lackawanna County for this project, but ultimately, it can offer guidance to students throughout the county, he said.

"Then we'll have, hopefully, a program that is responsive to a sector of employment out there that has needs, and that we think is actually emerging," he said.

The Center for Energy Workforce Development, a Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit funded by industry groups, waxed optimistic in its most recent 2015 survey on natural gas and electricity workforce.

The survey found more workers are younger than when the center began collecting data in 2006.

Lineworkers, those who hang power lines, were among the youngest with more than half under age 42 and one-fourth younger than 32. In spite of the promising outlook, more than one-third of all engineers were older than 53, the survey found.

In the gas and electricity sectors, more than one-third of employees have the highest potential to retire in the next decade, the survey says, with 24 percent of those workers set to retire in the next five years.

Among lineworkers, technicians, plant operators and engineers, the survey estimates 74,000 replacements getting hired nationwide, with the greatest share being lineworkers and technicians, between 2015 and 2019.

The void, however, quits sprawling in the subsequent four years, from 2020 to 2024, with only about one-tenth of the workforce of retirement age in that period.

Contact the writer: joconnell@timesshamrock.com, @jon_oc on Twitter

Aspiring utility worker

scholarship available

Pennsylvania American Water started accepting applications for its Stream of Learning Scholarship Program, which awards 10 students living within its service area $1,000 each.

To be eligible, students must be high school seniors planning to study environmental science, engineering, biology or chemistry at a two- or four-year college or technical school.

Family members of utility workers are ineligible.

Applications are available at www.pennsylvaniaamwater.com.

Submissions must be postmarked by March 24.

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(c)2017 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

Visit The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.) at thetimes-tribune.com

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