Utilities Industry Working to Attract Young People in ‘Graying-Out’ Workforce

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WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa utility companies are bracing themselves for a massive loss in the industry's workforce within the next five to seven years, and that's causing a major push to increase the number of young adults entering the business.

Those inside the industry refer to it as a "graying-out" phenomenon; nationally, the utility workforce as a whole will turn over more than 50 percent of its workers in the next five to seven years. In Iowa alone, that means 400-500 technicians will retire in that time.

The problem? The utility industry isn't bringing in enough new workers to fill that gap.

"The utilities is probably going to be running at a bit of a deficit, manpower-wise, for awhile, until they can get back up to speed," said Ron Estabrook, a gas line tech instructor at Marshalltown Community College. "It becomes an issue in Iowa, because Iowa has a lot of small town locations. And getting younger people to want to live and work in a small town atmosphere is sometimes a little more difficult."

Estabrook is attending the Iowa Training Qualification Pipeline Safety Conference in West Des Moines this week, where he's giving several seminars to attendees on how the industry can better attract young people. He says it's mainly a messaging problem; young people - especially in high school - don't see a lot of utility companies at career fairs.

Additionally, when young people do look at utility jobs, Estabrook says they often say, "I don't want to be a meter-reader," without realizing that a two-year degree in the field can result in a baseline salary of $70,000.

Estabrook's program at Marshalltown Community College will graduate eight students this May - he says his classes could easily train upwards of 20 students if the interest were there.

"What probably is going to happen in the utility industry, is they're going to have to rely a lot more on contract crews to be able to do some of the functions that they don't have their own personnel to do," he said.

That could mean longer waiting periods in smaller towns across Iowa to get service. The list of real-world implications goes on, but Estabrook says the goal is to improve the industry's messaging tactics, so more young people give careers in utilities a harder look.

"I'm working with a couple of major utilities companies right now on a scholarship program, where they will go to those small towns and contact the kid who is living there already, maybe wants to live there the rest of his life, and maybe offer him a job if he will go to school, and finish school," he said. "That they will pay for his school, if he agrees to stay [in that town] for a number of years afterward."

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