The Electrical Worker online
July 2015

IBEW Testifies on Capitol Hill:
Apprenticeship Works
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It has been nearly a decade since comprehensive energy policy was passed in the U.S. Since then, efforts to update federal law foundered on the wide divide between the parties.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee started a new effort to get a comprehensive new energy policy through the Senate in May and the IBEW was on Capitol Hill to make sure that apprenticeships for future utility workers were part of the conversation.

The IBEW was invited to testify on a panel of energy policy experts as part of the rollout of the comprehensive energy reform plan put together by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chair of the Energy Committee.

Most of the witnesses testifying before the committee were concerned with the transformation of the laws covering the infrastructure used to generate and distribute power. IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter was the only witness primarily concerned with making sure the U.S. has a qualified workforce to run the new technologies and replace the huge number of utility workers that will be retiring in the near future.

"Over the next 10 years, 55 percent of the industry will need to be replaced," Hunter said during his testimony. "My point in talking about the large number of people leaving the industry is to talk about how we replace and train those new employees. The joint apprenticeship model works."

Hunter asked the committee to include support for joint apprenticeship programs, like the ones run by the National Utility Industry Training Fund, in any comprehensive energy policy. The NUITF is a joint project of the IBEW and utility companies across the U.S. Apprentices in NUITF programs work alongside master craftsmen to learn their trade, while getting paid. The NUITF also runs six-week and longer boot-camp style programs to identify promising candidates for apprenticeships.

The energy committee is considering more than 20 energy-related infrastructure bills covering a variety of areas including the siting, permitting and approval of high-voltage transmission lines, the export of natural gas, grid modernization and a host of reforms to the way wholesale energy prices are determined.

"The vast majority of the energy infrastructure is privately owned," Murkowski said. "The question is what is the proper role of government and how will our laws influence the $300 billion to $500 billion of private investment we need over the next 20 years?"

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the need to focus on the workforce was paramount.

"The utility industry will have to add 1.5 million workers in the next 15 years," Cantwell said. "This definitely has my attention."

Other witnesses on the panel discussed the need for market reforms, the need to accelerate the integration of distributed solar rooftop generation and a more efficient permitting process for new gas pipelines and power lines. All agreed on the need for the federal government to increase its involvement in making the grid more reliable and resilient.

"Between 2000 and 2014, weather related disruptions have doubled, and that is likely to get worse in the future as extreme weather increases," said Amy Ericson, president of Alstom, the company that created the software that runs on nearly half of the updated, smart grid systems in the country. "Strong federal leadership and support for grid modernization R&D through public-private partnerships involving utilities, technology suppliers, national labs, and universities is crucial."

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, however, said parts of West Virginia that have been losing residents for decades as coal mines and steel mills have shut down are now seeing an increase in jobs because of the rapidly growing natural gas hydraulic fracturing.

But Capito lamented that many of the people getting those jobs are not from West Virginia.

"We see a lot of cars with Texas and Oklahoma license plates," she said. After thanking Hunter for his testimony last year on the negative impacts of the closure of dozens of coal plants because of emissions regulations, Capito asked Hunter if a joint apprenticeship program like the NUITF could make sure new jobs went to local workers.

"We don't like seeing those foreign plates either, Senator: most of them are nonunion," Hunter said. "The utility industry is hiring right now. We have partnership with AEP in West Virginia and we are hiring."

Hunter said DTE Energy in Detroit has been offering successful boot camp programs that are bringing in primarily long term unemployed workers — 50 percent of them veterans — that led to dozens of people being hired. The program, and others like it in other states, are funded by grants and supported by state and local workforce investment boards.

"Joint apprenticeships create good opportunities and keep utilities profitable at the same time," Hunter said. "These are local jobs, but many of the people who would be best served by the programs don't have the funding to go to community colleges or even our boot camps. [Federal] financial aid is important."

Murkowski said the 22 bills under consideration would be debated in committee over the next few months, and would be ready for a vote in the Senate later this summer.



IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter, right, testifies about the importance of apprenticeship programs before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.