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Help wanted: Utility industry faces worker shortage

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Baby boomers are retiring, and that's not good news for the utility industry, which employs thousands of them to repair electric lines and perform other work necessary to keep power flowing to homes and businesses.

As they look to recruit new workers, utilities are touting the wages they pay, which they did at a career fair hosted this week by Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster for students in mechanical, plumbing, HVAC, and water and environmental technology programs.

The average utility wage in Pennsylvania is just over $93,000 per year, which is nearly twice the average wage for all industries.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been an 11 percent increase in utility jobs in the last five years. But it has been difficult to find workers to fill them.

The next generation is needed soon

"Our lineworker workforce throughout FirstEnergy continues to age," said Ed Shuttleworth, regional president for Met Ed, adding: "It takes years of specialized training and on-the-job training to become a skilled lineworker."

Besides the retirement of the current workforce, other factors have led to the workforce shortage, such as the need to support new systems and technologies. Engineers, plant operators, field staff – including people who maintain existing systems and build new systems – are all in high demand, as are specialists in areas like cyber security.

"These are great jobs with excellent salaries and benefits which allow individuals to realize the American dream of home-ownership, purchasing cars, taking vacations, and in effect, driving the economy," said William Griscom, president of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. "We must ensure that these careers do not hide in plain sight from the next generation of workers."

Job security is one reason why Laura Perry, a student in Thaddeus Stevens' water and environmental technology program, is choosing a career in the utility industry.

"It’s both a public service and it also helps our environment, and it’s something that will always be needed. Our need for clean water will never go away," she said.

Nationally, utilities are expected to hire an additional 70,000 workers by the year 2020. And future growth is expected to create an estimated 1.5 million utility jobs by 2030.

While the projections are great for skilled job seekers, the situation is dire when seen through the other side of the looking glass. Experts say the labor shortage is an impediment to economic development and growth, and is only expected to grow in the coming years.

"This is an issue that goes far beyond the utility agency. It’s an issue that has the potential to impact all of us in terms of the reliability and the cost of our utility services and the health and safety of our communities," warned Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission Chairwoman Gladys Brown.

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Shelby White

Shelby White covers banking and finance, law and Lancaster County for the Central Penn Business Journal. For tips, email her at swhite@cpbj.com.

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