How One Utility Giant Created Its Own Pipeline of Skilled Workers

A California power company developed a unique in-house training program after facing a major worker shortage.

PG&E hiring managers, contractors, and other regional employers meet the soon-to-be graduates of the company's training program at a PowerPathway Employer Day event in California.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Jan. 13, 2014, 5 a.m.

This is the second in a weeklong series that ex­am­ines dif­fer­ent pro­grams around the coun­try that try to tackle the un­em­ploy­ment crisis and keep Amer­ic­ans con­nec­ted to the work­force.

James Aton faced life without the mil­it­ary in 2012 for the first time in nearly a dec­ade. He had a child on the way and had nev­er filled out a re­sume be­fore.

The 31-year-old saw his ten­ure in the Navy end when cut­backs led to the forced dis­charge of thou­sands of sail­ors, he says. “Even though I’m los­ing my ca­reer,” he re­mem­bers, “it’s giv­ing me an op­por­tun­ity to re­build.”

His first step was en­rolling in a WyoTech, a school that of­fers tech­nic­al trade pro­grams, to build on the skills he had ac­quired as an avi­ation elec­tri­cian in the Navy. There, he heard from a fel­low vet­er­an about Power­Path­way, a 10-week pro­gram run by Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric to train fu­ture util­ity work­ers in north­ern and cent­ral Cali­for­nia.

As one of 1,400 ap­plic­ants, Aton earned his way in­to the pro­gram’s 28-mem­ber class. For two and a half months, he trained with PG&E from early in the morn­ing un­til late at night. The gruel­ing hours wer­en’t the only hard­ships. Asked how the Power­Path­way ex­per­i­ence com­pared to boot camp, he laughed. “The phys­ic­al as­pect of it was ac­tu­ally harder than any­thing in the Navy,” Aton said. “The workouts and ex­er­cises had me more toned than I was in the mil­it­ary.” The phys­ic­al train­ing was im­port­ant, Aton said, be­cause line work­ers of­ten have to clam­ber up util­ity poles car­ry­ing heavy equip­ment.

Today, Aton is a few months in­to his new job at PG&E, work­ing as a gas util­ity op­er­at­or in Oak­land, Cal­if., and earn­ing a stable in­come. But don’t think of him as the only be­ne­fi­ciary of the com­pany’s train­ing pro­gram. Everything that can be said about Aton — in a tough spot, need­ing to ad­apt, and deal­ing with new work­force real­it­ies — can also be said of his huge util­ity-com­pany em­ploy­er.

PG&E is one of many util­it­ies bra­cing for a “sil­ver tsunami,” a term that its work­force de­vel­op­ment head James Mor­ante uses to de­scribe the im­pend­ing re­tire­ment of many of the com­pany’s older work­ers. The As­pen In­sti­tute es­tim­ates nearly half of the coun­try’s skilled en­ergy and util­ity tech­ni­cian work­ers will need to be re­placed by 2015.

Rather than wait­ing for that void to ap­pear, PG&E has tried to de­vel­op the work­force to fill it, and in do­ing so, has cre­ated a train­ing mod­el for oth­er in­dus­tries with hard-to-fill po­s­i­tions. Since 2008, Power­Path­way has turned out 450 gradu­ates, more than 80 per­cent of whom get hired in­to the in­dustry. The com­pany says ap­plic­ants are eager to com­mit to the pro­gram be­cause entry-level po­s­i­tions can pay around $26 an hour, plus over­time.

The pro­grams can vary widely, de­pend­ing on the work­ers’ skill set and the needs of the in­dustry. Some pre­pare work­ers for weld­ing. Oth­ers train line work­ers, while oth­er pro­grams teach gas op­er­a­tions.

Get­ting a job after the pro­gram is not guar­an­teed, but Power­Path­way makes its gradu­ates “much more vi­able can­did­ates for PG&E and the in­dustry in gen­er­al,” Mor­ante said.

The pro­gram also al­lows the com­pany to fill its ranks with bet­ter-pre­pared work­ers. Em­ploy­ees hired from the pro­gram “really hit the ground run­ning and have more aware­ness about the com­pany and the cul­ture,” he says. “Power­Path­way takes the guess­work out of entry-level po­s­i­tion hir­ing.” In ad­di­tion, pro­gram gradu­ates have lower at­tri­tion rates and pro­gress quick­er than oth­er hires once they join the com­pany, Mor­ante says.

The com­pany works with com­munity col­leges and loc­al gov­ern­ments’ work­force-in­vest­ment boards to of­fer Power­Path­way. It began of­fer­ing mil­it­ary-spe­cif­ic pro­grams in 2009 when one of its part­ners earned a vet­er­ans-only grant. In 2013, 100 out of 250 pro­gram gradu­ates were vet­er­ans. The fo­cus on hir­ing mil­it­ary mem­bers, Mor­ante says, comes from PG&E Pres­id­ent Tony Ear­ley, him­self a former Navy of­ficer.

As the pro­gram has de­veloped, its lead­ers have dis­covered former ser­vice mem­bers make ideal can­did­ates to meet its de­mands — ir­reg­u­lar hours, tech­nic­al chal­lenges, and phys­ic­ally try­ing tasks. Re­cent vet­er­ans are also one of the groups hard­est hit by the re­ces­sion; in Novem­ber 2013, post-9/11 vet­er­ans faced a 10 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment rate.

In ad­di­tion to learn­ing tech­nic­al skills, Power­Path­way tries to bol­ster its can­did­ates com­mu­nic­a­tion skills. “It was my first time ever try­ing to write a re­sume,” Aton said. The pro­gram helped him high­light his lead­er­ship roles, tech­nic­al skills, and safety ex­per­i­ence.

For its par­ti­cipants, the train­ing pro­gram of­fers a way to find a good-pay­ing job. And, for PG&E, it’s a pipeline to fill a quickly grow­ing work­force void. “It’s a huge chal­lenge,” Aton said. “Every step of it, you’re learn­ing something new.” That learn­ing has paid off — for him and the com­pany.

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