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Workforce of the Future: Issues and Action

Issue 10 and Volume 111.

By Richard Hinkie, President, Midwest Energy Association

What are companies doing about impending workforce shortages?

Overall, they are integrating recruiting, selection, operations, benefits and training workforce development activities into a cohesive, company wide strategy. They are also working through associations because through collaboration, they can create needed solutions faster and cheaper. Here at Midwest Energy Association (MEA), our Workforce Development Council (WDC) connects workforce development leaders to do just that.

Here are some successful workforce practices we see.

Recruiting—Companies continue to send recruiters to job fairs, high schools and vocational schools. At a deeper level, many utilities want to get more involved in schools. For example, Gulf Power has an Academy which works with 10th-12th graders at West Florida High School in a three year program that begins with sophomore field trips and ends with seniors working every other day at Gulf Power. We also need more post secondary vocational school certificate and degree programs. Consequently, NorthWestern Energy and Mitchell Technical Institute in Huron, S.D.; Commonwealth Edison and the City College of Chicago; and Vectren, Indianapolis Power & Light, Nipsco and IVY Tech in Indiana have teamed. There are other collaborations elsewhere.

Vocational schools are important resources not only for training, but for recruiting potential new employees. They can pre-screen applicants, manage scholarships or help arrange mentorships as well. Companies are also working much more closely with local Workforce Boards to obtain grants and other support. Another option is a boot camp such as the seven week program run by South Georgia Technical College. It serves as a recruiting tool and it verifies prospective hires can perform the work physically and mentally before they are hired.

MEA also supports the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD). CEWD is a separate national organization focused on industry recruiting. MEA is actively working as CEWD’s Midwest regional partner. CEWD provides the www.getintoenergy.org public website to attract new high school and post secondary students to our energy industry. They are a recruiting best practice sharing organization and include many vocational schools in their networking and programming.

Training—Companies want to cut their cost of learning without cutting employee competence or safety. Lower cost on-line learning that delivers courses and tracks proficiency either on the Internet or on intranets is already in use at Xcel, Integrys, MidAmerican, Nisource, Duke and others. Some companies are also exploring how to reduce the length of time it takes to train technical employees.

Representing a major collaborative success, MEA’s www.energyu.org national internet training site serves thousands of employees and helps cut training costs at over 500 companies. Technical courses, OSHA, industry orientation, and leadership development courses from Harvard Management Mentor+ and SkillSoft are available. Industry consensus tests, field performance evaluations, and classroom materials are also available from EnergyU. Collaboration means each company has access to a multi-million dollar library for a fraction of the cost.

Healthcare Cost Containment—Companies are experimenting with plans that make employees more accountable for the financial impacts of their healthcare choices. Health Savings Accounts (HSA), for example, require high deductible insurance plans, but if an employee uses less healthcare or makes less costly choices (such as using generic drugs or uses urgent care instead of the emergency room) their savings account can grow, similar to an IRA.

MEA helped create one of the first energy industry pharmacy collaboratives—a way for utility companies to cut the cost of prescription drugs through group purchasing. One of our members saved over $350,000 in one year—same number of prescriptions, but at lower total cost. We are now seeking to expand that offering and to look into other ways to collaborate to save money on healthcare.

Keeping Employees Healthy—Utilities are implementing ergonomics, health screening, health lifestyle classes and disease management programs to help those with chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, or joint/muscle issues, take better care of themselves and stay on the job. The idea is simple. We have an investment in each employee. We care about each employee. If we can help keep each employee healthy that pays off for them and for us.

MEA, for 102 years, has focused on utility worker safety. Today, at each of our operating roundtables and our Summer Iowa State University Operations Conferences we share programs on proper lifting, wrenching, worksite preparation and other ergonomics and safety related topics. Our Life Sustaining Awards and safety awards help keep safety awareness high. MEA is evaluating other collaborative worker health initiatives.

The MEA Workforce Development Council oversees all of these workforce issues and reports directly to the MEA Board. WDC members include Alliant Energy, MidAmerican Energy, Vectren, Kansas City Power & Light, CenterPoint Energy, NiSource, ComEd, Integrys, DTE, CMS and many other Midwest companies.

The outlook is good for our industry because there are a lot of creative utility people out there working together, sharing what they know. And, whenever it is cheaper, faster and better, MEA will continue to create new collaborations in the spirit of www.energyu.org and the energy industry pharmacy coalition.