By ALAN J. ORTBALS
The impact of the Baby Boom generation continues to rumble through American society. Richard Mark, chairman and president of Ameren Illinois, indicates that roughly 40 percent of his nearly 3,000 workers will be eligible for retirement over the next five years. And that’s on the heels of more than 500 associates who’ve retired from the energy company within the last five years.
While replacing the institutional knowledge and experience of these longtime employees is a challenge, it presents a tremendous opportunity for skilled workers looking to enter the labor force.
Luckily, said Mark, Baby Boomers are staying on the job for more years than their parents did.
“That has given us an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and bring in new employees now so they can be trained alongside our more experienced employees before they retire,” he said. “We’re making a concerted effort to provide opportunities for our more seasoned employees to mentor our new hires and impart that historical knowledge to make for a smooth transition to the next generation of talent.”
The challenge posed by Baby Boomer retirements is exacerbated by the technological revolution.
“Nowadays just about every piece of equipment we put on a power pole has some type of sensor or digital technology involved,” Mark said. “Science, technology, engineering and math capabilities are needed in almost all phases of work. Obviously, we test for those types of skills. So it’s important that we get that information out to the K-12 school systems, the community colleges and four-year colleges. A student may not end up being an I.T. technician, but they’re going to need many of those skills for almost any job we have available.”
Ameren Illinois operates its own internal apprenticeship program and currently has more than 150 apprentices enrolled in the electric and gas technician curricula. It’s a three-year program that’s operated in conjunction with local labor unions. Ameren Illinois apprentices earn while they learn and start at about $60,000 per year.
“If they successfully complete that program,” said Mark, “they become a journeyman lineman or a gas journeyman and those jobs pay significantly more than the starting salary. So, it’s a good way for even those without a college degree to make a living with good benefits.”
Mark stresses that applicants must have the basic foundation of a solid education, along with the ability to think critically.
“These jobs are only going to become more complex in the future,” Mark said. “It’s becoming more and more critical for young people to come to the table with the necessary STEM skills.”
Ameren Illinois demonstrates the importance of education by letting students see for themselves what types of careers they might work toward. For example, Ameren personnel do presentations in schools throughout its 43,700-square-mile service territory. These involve students from fifth grade up to four-year colleges.
Last month, Ameren Illinois engineers and CAD professionals participated in the Richland Community College Career Fair in Decatur, providing young people a chance to meet them, talk to them personally, view some of their equipment and get a feel for the types of things they do on a daily basis.
“We also have a group of female Ameren Illinois engineers who are working with Girl Scout troops on STEM projects,” Mark said, “helping to get these young ladies involved and excited about science, technology, engineering and math. They are trying to help them understand what’s needed, what’s available, the kinds of careers that they can pursue and provide mentorship along the way.”
In addition to the hands-on learning, Ameren Illinois also supports STEM education through financial grants. For example, it provided funding for Marquette High School’s new STEM center in Alton and made grants to Althoff High School in Belleville and the Warrensburg-Latham school district in the village of Warrensburg, Ill.
“It’s a great opportunity to work with those younger students to get them excited about STEM education because they can see real job prospects ahead if they focus on those skills,” Mark said. “We will continue to work with the elementary schools, high schools and colleges in our service territory to help prepare young people to fill our talent pipeline in the future.”
By ALAN J. ORTBALS