June 2011

California Local Prods Regulators to Confront Utility Worker Shortage
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Unemployment is running in the double digits in Nevada, but staffing levels at Sierra Pacific Power Co. are creeping dangerously low as more and more utility workers hit retirement age.

In 2008, more than half of the hourly work force at Sierra Pacific—a subsidiary of NV Energy that services the northern half of the state—was over 50, with more than 20 percent eligible for immediate retirement, reports the Utility Reporter, Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245's newspaper. The local represents workers at NV Energy.

"It's a bad situation," says Local 1245 Business Representative Randy Osborn. "The company has closed almost all of its walk-in customer service centers, and outside of the major cities, there are virtually no line crews available."

Local 1245 filed a petition with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada to investigate staffing levels at the utility last winter. Despite resistance from the company, an investigation got underway in April.

The problem, says Osborn, is that for years NV Energy boosted its profit margins by cutting corners on training and recruitment.

"It posted record profits last year and CEO Michael Yackira even treated himself to a $1 million bonus—on top of his $4.5 million salary—all while not putting any efforts toward recruiting new workers to the industry," he says.

The shrinking work force is beginning to be felt by NV Energy's customers, as long wait times for customer service personnel drive down the utility's approval ratings.

The Utility Reporter says that JD Power and Associates, which surveys utility customers, rated NV Energy as dead last among all mountain state utilities in terms of customer satisfaction.

Only 733 workers are assigned to cover a 60,000 square-mile service area, down from 813 in 2009. It is a work force that, Osborn says, is nowhere near sufficient to adequately service and maintain the system.

Sierra Pacific isn't unique. The utility industry as a whole is facing a skilled worker shortage, while an aging work force and years of underinvestment in recruitment and training are leaving utilities unprepared.

Nearly a third of the country's utility workers will be eligible for retirement by 2013. (See "Will Utilities be Prepared to Face Uncertain Future?" The Electrical Worker, November 2009.)

Increasingly, utility worker unions are pushing state officials to get serious about confronting the skilled worker shortage.

"We have to use the regulatory process to bring all parties to the table to address the planning needs," says Utility Department Director Jim Hunter. "The safety and reputation of union members are at stake, as well as the quality of service."