Utility Director Donnie Colston, second from right and with back to the camera, testifies before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development on March 7 in Washington, D.C. Committee chairwoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, is to the far right on the podium. Ranking member Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is two chairs to Kaptur’s right. 

Utility Director Donnie Colston testified before a House subcommittee on March 7, telling members the role the IBEW and other unions can play in meeting the nation’s increased demand for workers in the energy and nuclear industries.

Utility Director Donnie Colston just before he spoke to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy Development on March 7 at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

Foremost among that, he told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, is training provided to IBEW members in conjunction with the utilities that employ them. The IBEW welcomes the federal government’s help in encouraging prospective workers that good jobs are available in the energy and nuclear sectors, he said.

“The grid is changing,” Colston said in response to a question from Rep. Peter Kilmer, D-Wash. “The skills need to change within the grid itself. The jobs within the utilities are very blue collar, high paying, highly skilled jobs.”

Colston told the committee the average hourly wage of an IBEW member working in utility operations is $46.24, more than double the average of a typical U.S. worker – and that’s before pensions and healthcare are included. That’s due to the fact those jobs are becoming increasingly technical and the demand for workers has increased.

“When you talk about grid modernization, the lineman of yesterday, when you set poles and pull wire, is not the lineman of tomorrow,” he said. “The lineman of tomorrow has to be digitally experienced enough to know that the sensors we put on the line to communicate with the system dispatch are allowing the utility to understand what’s happening with the electricity.”

The hearing was called to discuss workforce and development trends in the energy and nuclear security industries. Colston noted the Code of Excellence is used in a partnership between Toledo, Ohio, Local 245 and Toledo Edison – both of which are headquartered within the district of Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, the committee’s chairwoman.

“For more than 10 years, the Code has allowed the IBEW to meet or exceed our customers’ needs,” he said. “The Code has played a part in the creation of employment opportunities for IBEW members because of improved relationships with customers and employers.”

Kaptur, who has been a strong supporter of unions and the energy sector during her 19 terms in the House, noted that 12 percent of the country’s workers in the energy industry are eligible to retire – which would mean a loss of 800,000 jobs. Surveys have found that 76 percent of energy companies report having difficulty hiring, she said.

Thus, providing a skilled workforce for the future isn’t just necessary to ensure good jobs. It also is crucial to the nation’s overall security, she said.

“In my view, energy workforce is about collaboration and establishing closer partnerships between labor, our STEM objectives, the national laboratories, industry and academia,” Kaptur said.

Kaptur said that includes providing training for energy workers losing their jobs due to changes within the industry, such as workers from traditional coal-mining areas.

“Collaboration means the next generation can be nuclear welders or nuclear physicists,” she said.

Discussions between Republicans and Democrats during the hearing were cordial and even GOP members expressed support for labor’s role in providing educational and training programs. Still, some members lamented that not enough young Americans are interested in jobs in the energy sector, especially those positions that do not require a bachelor’s degree.

“I think we’re talking about the challenge of our time,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. “I work with the Department of Energy on a number issues and getting young people involved in science is a difficult problem.”

Colston agreed, but added that while a strong science and technology base is important, it is no substitute for the training programs between unions like the IBEW and their utility partners.

“STEM gets them through the door,” he said. “What STEM does not do is get them a skilled trade once they get through that door. What happens from that point, in conjunction with the utility, we teach them the skills they are going to need to be successful in their career.”

Besides Colston, other witnesses at the hearing included Morgan Smith, chief executive officer of Consolidated Nuclear Security; Sloane Evans, senior vice president for human resources at Georgia Power and Southern Company; and Noel Bakhtian, director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies.

A video replay of the hearing is available here.