Aging Workforce Prompts New Mentoring Program

By Published On: September 28, 2007

As the utility industry workforce ages, energy regulators and industry executives are increasingly concerned about the ability of California to supply a skilled and diverse work force to serve an ethnically varied customer base. Their concern about replacing workers extends from the professional ranks of lawyers and finance managers to line workers and clerical staffers, said utility executives at the California Public Utilities Commission’s 5th annual diversity hearing in Los Angeles September 25. “You have a perfect storm approaching,” said Steve Leder, Pacific Gas & Electric director of management and workforce diversity. The average age of the utility’s workforce is 47 and getting ready to retire. Added to the aging workforce problem is one of hiring personnel who can address multi-lingual customers. Forty-two percent of PG&E’s customers speak a language other than English in the home, according to Leder, and the utility must increase the diversity of its workers to meet their needs. Yet, at a time of an increasing call for diversity in its workforce, fewer Latinos and African-Americans are graduating from high schools and colleges who bring the needed skills to the workplace, he said. San Diego Gas & Electric and SoCal Gas are experiencing the same challenges, said Vicki Zeiger, vice president for the utilities. She said that the two Sempra utilities serve customers who speak 48 languages and are only able to do so because 53 percent of their workforce is diverse. She said that the numbers of ethnic students graduating from high school and college are dropping. She added, meanwhile “jobs in the future will be more technically oriented” so will require more education. The major reason for declining achievement is that an increasing number of young people in California and the nation no longer associate academic accomplishment with career opportunities, said Winston Doby, University of California, Los Angeles, vice chancellor emeritus. To help increase the number of students qualified to work in utilities and other major companies, the CPUC and other state agencies joined together to launch a new non-profit effort known as the California Aspire Achieve Lead Pipeline Project. Doby will lead the effort. Initially funded with $1 million from California’s major utilities, the project plans to build a mentoring program that will begin as early as elementary school to create interest in a variety of professional careers among students with diverse backgrounds. The program–also supported by the California Public Employment Retirement System, California Department of Insurance, and State Bar of California–aims to initially help students succeed in the fields of law, finance, information technology, and life sciences. It may later be expanded to include additional careers. The program is needed, said Peter Arth, former chief of staff to CPUC president Mike Peevey, because of the increasingly “dire outlook” for education in California. New studies and data show that achievement levels begin declining after 4th grade resulting in diverse students “leaking out of the educational pipeline,” said a white paper Arth presented on the new project at the hearing. The partnership is expected to complement existing utility programs to train diverse workers for a variety of jobs. The CPUC also heard a status report on diversity at the hearing. It showed progress on a number of CPUC sponsored initiatives, including an increase in the dollar volume of procurement by utilities from women, minority, and disabled-veteran business enterprises. Spending with these enterprises rose from $2 billion in 2005 to $2.7 billion in 2006. Utilities continued to increase their focus on procurement of legal and financial services enterprises, according to the report. However, as a percentage of total utility procurement spending, contracts with women, minority, and disabled-veteran business enterprises dropped by 2.5 percent in 2006. Peevey lauded the improvement, but urged utilities to do more in the coming years, particularly to contract with disabled-veteran owned firms. “There should come a day when diversity occurs naturally,” said CPUC commissioner Timothy Simon. Meanwhile, he urged utilities to continue their efforts to help build a sense of “ownership” among California’s diverse populations.

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