The men and women who don hard hats and climb poles to work on power lines might be the most visible employees of electric utilities, but it takes a host of other professions to keep power flowing. From accounting to communications, engineering to human resources and member service to line work, there are many job opportunities at electric cooperatives – especially because Baby Boomers are retiring in huge numbers.
By 2017, 55 percent of electric co-op CEOs will be eligible for retirement, and the number jumps to 75 percent in 10 years. And that’s just the top job bracket – other categories of workers will be experiencing significant turnover during the next 5 years too:
Senior managers – 37 percent
Supervisors – 31 percent
System operations employees – 26 percent
Engineers – 24 percent
Skilled trades (lineworkers and equipment operators – 16 percent
Information technology – 14 percent
This means a lot of new positions may be opening up at cooperatives near you. Co-ops generally are considered to be great places to work, no matter what the type of cooperative. Electric co-ops, specifically, are not-for-profit businesses, which means the money they generate goes to operating expenses and meeting financial lending requirements; any extra revenues over and above operating expenses are returned to their member-owners in the form of patronage capital credits.
Martin Lowery has worked with electric cooperatives for more than 30 years, a length of time that’s common in the industry because of its stability and generous benefit offerings. He’s executive vice president for member and association relations at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), the trade group that provides support and services for about 900 electric cooperatives across the country.
But Lowery’s service hasn’t been limited to NRECA. In fact, he recently was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame for his dedication to co-ops worldwide.
“Cooperative employees enjoy a benefit that many other workers do not,” says Lowery. “They have a great deal of autonomy in their jobs; we call it ‘wearing many hats.’ They have a real opportunity to build relationships within the cooperative and within the cooperative network – relationships that often last a lifetime. They have the opportunity to do what they do best everyday.”
The tide is turning now for job opportunities
Retirements at co-ops already have begun in earnest, and electric cooperatives are in the thick of planning to ensure new employees are equipped to offer top-notch service. Decades of institutional knowledge can’t be replaced, but training can provide a solid foundation.
With a business model that focuses on the needs of their member-owners, electric cooperatives aren’t like other electric utilities or companies. The new employees will need to understand the cooperative business model and the philosophy behind it.”
To that end, training programs for linemen and other employees sponsored by or partnered with electric co-ops have popped up all across the country. For example, the Powerline curriculum at Northwest Iowa Community College gives future lineworkers the skills they need to construct and maintain overhead and underground power lines. And the Wind Energy and Turbine Technology Program at Iowa Lakes Community College provides hands-on experience in the construction, maintenance and operation of wind turbines.
Programs like these are wins for the co-ops, the workers and the local economy, because the workers are properly trained and start their new careers on the right foot. Some co-ops even recruit from colleges and universities; it’s not uncommon to see new employees who spent at least one summer as an intern at their local electric cooperatives.
Electric co-ops: Check the numbers
A unique aspect about electric cooperatives in the U.S. is that each one is an independent business – but they’re all connected in a vast network that serves 42 million people across 47 states. They serve 19 million homes, schools, businesses, churches, farms and other establishments in 2,500 of America’s 3,141 counties. (In Iowa, electric co-ops provide power to about 650,000 people in all 99 counties.)
To accomplish this feat, about 900 electric co-ops nationwide employ nearly 70,000 workers, Obviously, much more goes on at each one of these cooperatives than just keeping the system running.
Customer service representatives take care of phone calls and bill payments, and member service employees offer programs and services such as home energy audits. Staking technicians and engineers plot where new lines will be built, and purchasing employees maintain an inventory of equipment and negotiate contracts. And IT professionals increasingly are part of the operations landscape; in addition to traditional IT work, more and more digital technologies are being integrated into the day-in and day-out complexities of running an electric system.
So, it’s safe to say that just about anyone from recent a college grad to a more seasoned professional looking for a great career can find a place at an electric co-op.
For More Information
Check these sources for more details about current job openings or educational opportunities in the electric utility industry.
Center for Energy Workforce Development
Energy Providers Coalition for Education
Get into Energy
Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives
Iowa Lakes Community College
Website: www. http://www.iowalakes.edu
Phone: 712-362-2604 or 800-521-5054
Northwest Iowa Community College
Phone: 712-324-5061 or 800-352-4907
Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives