July 2010

Plan Now for Depleted Work Forces
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Utility local leaders and members who are sick of too much talk and too little action on the glaring need to replace hundreds of thousands of retiring workers now have a potent new tool to grab the attention of employers and public officials.

A report by the research arm of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) urges regulators to investigate the present and future staffing of utilities and "be prepared to encourage solutions where appropriate and mandate them where necessary."

The report from the National Regulatory Research Institute, says IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter, offers utility members "a new comfort level" for showing up at commission hearings on utility rate increases to elevate and drive home work force planning issues.

At least a third of the nation’s electrical utility workers—a total of about 160,000—are eligible to leave their jobs by 2013. The latest report follows another from the Task Force on America’s Future Energy Jobs claiming that the nation’s electric power infrastructure is in "serious jeopardy" due to a lack of qualified workers in the pipeline. (See "Will Utilities be Prepared to Face Uncertain Future?" The Electrical Worker, November 2009.)

While most state commissions already have statutory authority to push utilities to prepare to replace a graying workforce, says Hunter, the report gives locals added leverage to push them to act.

Some local unions have already demonstrated that increased training and staffing can be won by taking their case to state commissioners.

In 1992, Madison, Wis., Local 2304, representing workers at Madison Gas and Electric, showed up at a rate hearing and asked the employer for a copy of their comprehensive work force plan. "They said, ‘We don’t have a plan,’" says Business Manager Dave Poklinkoski.

IBEW utility locals joined with other unions in the state, forming the Utility Workers Coalition to push for work force planning to be an integral part of the commission’s strategic energy assessments which, by law, must be prepared every two years.

"The good news," says Poklinkoski, "is that all utilities in Wisconsin are now mandated to work with unions to develop comprehensive work force plans, and some have increased hiring to prepare for retirements." At Madison G&E, for instance, 14 linemen were hired above the staffing level to prepare for future retirements.

But the bad news, says Poklinkoski, is that "the economy has taken a nosedive and utilities are retreating on their promises. We have to have another round of hearings to hold them accountable." In some locales, utilities are continuing to offer early retirements to increase their immediate bottom line, despite the looming manpower shortages.

This is a disaster waiting to happen and it’s time to get involved, says Hunter.

"Unions provide a point of view that no one else does," says Hunter, "because we are on the inside and know what is happening every day."

In the overwhelming majority of rate cases before public service commissions, local unions support companies increasing rates to maintain current wages and benefits. "While we’re not used to intervening," says Hunter, "we have to use the regulatory process to bring all parties to the table to address the planning needs. The safety and reputation of union members are at stake, as well as the quality of service. and efficient service."

At the IBEW Utility Conference this month, leaders will urge local unions to call their utility commissioners and offices of people’s counsel to schedule meetings upon their return home. The time for off-the-record discussions is ripe since few formal hearings are scheduled.

"Utility commissions are not thought of as the most logical place [to be heard] but union guys can offer up a new perspective because they know how their companies are being run," said Scott Strauss, author of the research report, who will be addressing the Utility Conference.

To review the report, visit www.nrri.org. More information can be found at www.naruc.org. For contacts at state utility commissions, visit www.naruc.org/commissions.cfm.

Fourteen linemen were hired above predicted staffing levels at Madison (Wis.) Gas and Electric after Local 2304 pushed for work force planning to be part of the utility’s required energy assessments.

Photo credit: Steve Salt: all three photos