By RICHARD J. MARK
One of the hallmarks of the utility industry is the deep institutional knowledge of the workforce. In utility companies throughout the country, it’s not unusual to hear about employees who have worked in the business for upward of 40 years or more. Why? There are a number of reasons, but there is little doubt that the longevity of the worker – whether a lineman, natural gas journeyman or office administrator – can be attributed in part to a passion and commitment to the mission of providing safe and reliable energy. For most, working at a utility is not just a job, it’s a calling.
At Ameren Illinois, that collective experience is clearly a competitive advantage. With a highly skilled and experienced workforce, the operation is more efficient. Productivity is higher, service disruptions are resolved more quickly, and customers receive greater value. At the same time, it poses a challenge. Today, almost 40 percent of the Ameren Illinois workforce is eligible to retire within the next five years.
Clearly, we are not expecting a mass exodus of our employees, but we do need to be diligent in attracting and retaining a diverse, next generation workforce. As we continue to enhance our natural gas and electric infrastructure, we’ll need high-performing, skilled employees to plan and build the grid of the future. As we make improvements in customer engagement, we’ll need dynamic customer-first professionals to take us to the next level. As we modernize our operational systems, we’ll need versatile engineers and technology workers to ensure that we do it right.
There are several parallels between the manufacturing sector and the energy delivery business. Manufacturing companies have been managing the transition in their workforce as the industry transforms from work performed by manual labor, to production largely propelled by computer-aided machinery and factory automation.
To be sure, the workers who climb utility poles and repair and maintain the electric grid in the toughest of conditions will always be the centerpiece of our workforce. At the same time, our business is also becoming more automated. Ameren Illinois is in year seven of a massive upgrade of our electric grid. We’re adding new technology – smart sensors – that can detect and prevent service outages, and we’re installing smart meters that provide rich data that enable our customers to manage their energy usage and costs.
What it all means is that the skills and education required to work in our business have advanced. Strong Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) skills are no longer just nice additions to the resume. These skills are the price of admission.
So where will this next generation of employees come from?
Our talent acquisition team is developing relationships with community colleges and vocational/technical programs. We’re partnering with our union leadership to ensure that we’re getting good candidates into the apprenticeship programs. We’re continuing to aggressively recruit and hire military veterans. We’re even reaching into the high schools to begin to cultivate the pipeline of STEM-ready workers that we will need in the future.
I believe that that there is no more exciting industry to consider entering today than the energy industry. We look forward to welcoming that next generation worker to help us meet the needs of our customers today, and into the future.
Richard J. Mark is chairman and president of Ameren Illinois.