(This is the second in a two-part series on deregulation.)
April 2005 IBEW Journal
A hurricane hits the mid-Atlantic, pounding the coastlines of North Carolina and Virginia. Homes and property are destroyed but the biggest problem is the massive power outage that has isolated tens of thousands of residents. The local utilities, already short-staffed, put out an urgent call for manpower to neighboring electric companies. But nobody comes. The lights stay out. There’s no one left to spare.
This disaster scenario is not as unlikely as it sounds. Years of relentless cost cutting by the utility industry have wiped out worker training programs and gutted the ranks of experienced linemen. Since deregulation came to the electric industry more than 10 years ago, utilities have reduced their line staff by 25 or 30 percent. Today, the average lineman is 48 and overworked thanks to the widespread practice of forced overtime.
The good news is anecdotal evidence suggests that the industry is aware of the problem. The bad news is not much is being done to address it.
"Everything is keyed on dollars and cents profit," said IBEW Utility Director Jim Hunter. "Storm outages are longer, and utilities are asking for more and more help from other utilities. The problem is that other companies are in the same boat. And they are still not hiring."
Thanks to bare-bones management under deregulation, worker training programs are all but relics from the past, victims of a highly competitive deregulated environment. The aging work force is dominated by baby boomers nearing retirement. Industry observers are predicting a slow-motion catastrophe over the low number of linemen qualified to shepherd the nation’s power grid into the future.
"We have this impending demographic crisis on our hands here," said Madison, Wisconsin, Local 2304 Business Manager Dave Poklinkoski. "At the same time, the utility industry has not come to grips with the need to hire and train that gap. But some utility companies are increasingly recognizing the problem."
Demographic Time Bomb
By 2010, as many as 60 percent of today’s experienced utility workers will retire. A survey conducted last fall by the Carnegie Mellon University Electricity Industry Center found that utility human resources executives overwhelmingly listed the aging work force as their number one concern. Eighty percent of those surveyed placed the aging work force as their biggest worry, far above the other listed concerns, which included cost of benefits and a skilled work force. The managers represented more than 200,000 workers from utilities across the country.
Those executives have done the math and the numbers do not work out in their favor. Climbing poles and repairing wires in extreme outdoor conditions is hard physical work. By the age of 55 or 60, most journeymen linemen are ready for retirement after a career spent in the elements.
"We are facing a huge depletion of highly trained people," Hunter said. "Some workers who have been in the industry for 30 years are not being replaced, and more than that, are not being given an opportunity to transfer their knowledge to the new work force because there isn’t one."
The industry is running out of time.
"If the industry continues to ignore this problem, all of society will be paying the price," said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill. "A modern, technologically dependent economy must have a professional work force to maintain its vital infrastructure or it will no longer be the reliable system we have come to take for granted."
A Life on the Lines
The job of utility linemen is varied and complex. It takes five years to train a lineman to a journeyman level, and most in the industry acknowledge that it takes 10 years to become a well-rounded lineman. There is much to learn, said Utility Department International Representative Don Hartley, who came out of the Virginia Power training program. It takes years to gain the skills to construct and maintain the full spectrum of the utility infrastructure.
"There is no short-term learning curve for working safely in an environment that has the ever-present potential for injury or death," Hartley said. Years of one-on-one, hands-on training is necessary to learn the mechanics of dealing with the vast assortment of wire sizes and tensions, understand complex equipment capabilities and develop effective trouble-shooting skills, not to mention getting comfortable with climbing 55-foot poles and 200-foot transmission towers and the art of maneuvering large utility trucks through alleys and congested city streets.
Richmond, Virginia, Local 50 member Dave Barham said when he joined Virginia Power 26 years ago, his service area shared nearly 50 helpers, or "groundmen," that assisted linemen on crews. Now the Virginia Beach service area he works in has been doubled, but there are only seven groundmen. Barham said the utility preaches safety on the job, but the worker shortage itself is a safety issue. "They want us to have a safety culture but don’t want to admit that it’s an older work force and that there’s not enough people on the jobsites," Barham said.
Despite the evidence of a shortage, the computer modeling increasingly in use as a management tool indicates just the opposite. "Man-hour reports keep telling our supervisors we have too many people on the job for the work that we do," Barham said.
The work is also getting more technical, with utility companies increasing employing computers to track workers in the field and monitor job assignments, Hunter said. "But no matter how advanced technology is, when a line is lying down in the road, it takes a body and a bucket truck to put that line back up," he said. "There is no technology that we have that can do that."
Virginia Power is relying more and more on calling in workers for repairs, but to keep the number of those calls down, they are using the first response crews to make temporary fixes instead of using call-outs for proper repairs by repair crews.
It is only in extreme cases that regulators have entered the fray on staffing levels in the electricity industry. Two years ago, the New Jersey Public Service Commission chided FirstEnergy, parent company of Jersey Central Power and Light (JCP&L), for what it considered unacceptably long response times for power outages. The utility was ordered to hire 300 workers. But the unusual mandate has not solved the staff shortage problem at JCP&L. Five New Jersey IBEW locals representing 1,350 JCP&L workers went on strike last December after rejecting a contract offer requiring workers to remain on call 24 hours a day—essentially forced overtime.
"These are just Band-Aid fixes," Hunter said. "Eventually that person is not going to continue to work 1,000 hours of overtime a year. They are just trying to prolong the inevitable. We are not going to have enough trained, qualified people to do the work."
Not only are the utilities failing to reconstitute dismantled training programs and neglecting to replace those who have retired, some—like Pepco in Washington, D.C., and Maryland and Connectiv in Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia—continue to offer their workers early retirements. As the utility work force dwindles, companies are using more and more nonunion contractors, further depleting the ranks of highly trained IBEW members.
The lack of knowledge transfer and loss of institutional understanding are a particular concern of IBEW members who have spent years honing their skills in a challenging and dangerous field. The specialized niche of utility construction has been severely cut due to the lack of new investment in transmission and distribution. Deregulation and its attendant uncertainties have eliminated any inclination on the part of utilities to spend money on capital improvements and even more importantly, even less on the maintenance necessary for sustaining reliable infrastructure.
"Every time that person with 30 years of experience walks out the door, the problem gets worse," Hunter said.
Work force staffing has long been an issue that Vacaville, California, Local 1245 has monitored with its main utility employer, Pacific Gas & Electric. The number of workers at PG&E declined dramatically for three years following the passage of the federal electricity deregulation law in 1992, said Local 1245 Communications Director Eric Wolfe. But public outrage for poor response times during a 1995 storm forced them to increase their work force for a couple of years; as a result the frequency and duration of outages declined. Ever since, their staffing levels have been declining, and service and reliability have suffered. "We are still concerned their work force levels are below historic norms and below what we think is required to deliver service as reliable as customers expect and want," Wolfe said.
The local is currently negotiating with the company over staffing levels. California was ground zero in 2000 and 2001 when the state’s deregulation law went into effect. Prices sky-rocketed and rolling blackouts plagued the state until the government put the brakes on deregulation. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is today trying to reintroduce deregulation, a prospect that has outraged Local 1245 and the other IBEW utility locals. (See "Electricity Deregulation: Reliving the Nightmare," IBEW Journal, March 2005)
As for work force levels, they mean a great deal more than a few hundred jobs. It is a matter of the threatened loss of what has become a universal right to reliable electricity.
"What they tried to take away from the people of California was something fundamental," said Wolfe. "Lives were endangered and the economy suffered, all because deregulation zealots opened the door to con artists and charlatans to exploit a system that was never intended to be a free market showcase. That’s extremely dangerous. Whether or not Americans recognize the danger in time to head it off is a real question mark."
The Nuclear Example
Due to the need for absolute safety in producing nuclear energy, the U.S. government closely oversees that segment of the industry. As such, the nuclear side of the industry is a bellwether for the rest. Not surprisingly, it has been plagued by a worker shortage and officials have been solving it in the same haphazard way the rest of the industry has: making current workers work more.
But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, concerned about fatigue and other side effects of the worker shortage that have the potential to harm the public and plant safety, has signaled its intent to require plant operators to hire more workers. A draft rule limiting the use of forced overtime is expected this summer, said IBEW Utility Department International Representative Todd Newkirk.
The industry itself has been following work force levels for the past several years. The Nuclear Energy Institute’s 2003 survey tracking work force challenges said the industry "may be unprepared for the amount of attrition in the next three to five years." The study, the most recent publicly available, warns future retirements are likely to have been underestimated by as much as 50 percent.
Planning for the Future
Madison Local 2304 has joined Milwaukee Local 2150, Eau Claire Local 953 and Madison Local 965 to form the Utility Workers Coalition, which represents 10,000 members in the state of Wisconsin. The group is actively working with the state Public Service Commission to require utilities to formulate succession plans, building upon previous legislative and regulatory successes that resulted in the state establishing comprehensive maintenance and service standards for electric generation, distribution and transmission. Last summer, Poklinkoski urged the Public Service Commission to require utility companies in their seven-year business plans to identify how they will replace retiring workers.
"The Utility Workers Coalition is taking a three-pronged strategy—pressing the succession issue at our utilities, at our regulatory bodies and in the public until the utilities do the right thing," Poklinkoski said. "We have to take this issue outside the business-as-usual approach, in which we sit down with management and hope they will listen to us. The lower level management, for the most part, understands the problem but senior management listens less to them than they do to us."
The growing labor shortage in the utility industry cuts across all occupations. Impending retirements and advancing technology prompted American Electric Power to announce the establishment of a fund last year for a power plant worker training program at West Virginia State University. Some locals and a number of major utilities have joined the Energy Provider Coalition for Education, devoted to providing online training for a number of occupations in the utility industry.
Hunter said the worker shortage will be addressed in the IBEW Utility Conference in May.
President Hill said this issue is a high priority for the IBEW. "We will continue to work with our utility employers and state regulators if necessary to set a clear orderly path for establishing the work force of the future. But we cannot do it alone. If we have to drag the industry, company by company, into facing this challenge, we will if we must."
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