Just as you keep a watchful eye on your other suppliers, it may be beneficial to keep an eye on your utility suppliers, too. Their challenges could easily become your challenges if utility supplies become problematic. As if the utility industry did not have enough challenges, a conference in August 2007 (sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor in Biloxi, MS) highlighted a new problem on the immediate horizon that could impact your bottom line. People who watch such things predict that upwards of half – yes, half – of the 1 million-employee-utility Baby Boomer workforce will be retiring during the next 10 years, beginning now. Imagine having to replace half of your highly trained and experienced workforce.
Some of the most critical losses will come among the field workers who must construct and maintain the utility infrastructure: power ants, high-voltage transmission lines, intermediate substations, and local area distribution. The challenge is critical because it takes a minimum of 5 years to train replacements. Not only must knowledge and skill be replaced, but also the motivation and attitudes making up the work ethics that are needed to assure that the systems remain reliable and safe throughout weather catastrophes and other emergencies. To cut costs and sustain profits, utilities have been outsourcing more and more labor-intensive services to independent trade contractors. But, they also face the same manpower crunch in the coming decade.
The first hurdle in this crisis is overcoming the social stigma attached to working with tools for a living. Many of the tools used by utility workers are quite exciting and technically challenging. So, the type of person who enjoys such work would find it extremely satisfying, in addition to receiving pay and benefits that, in many cases, top the charts. The problem is that too many parents and high school guidance counselors have been convinced that the only way to a lucrative career is by going to college. While college-trained engineers certainly are among the needed replacements, the field work does not require a college degree. It does, however, require a commitment to apprentice training that can be just as challenging. Both union and non-union employer groups, in addition to the federal government, are facing up to this problem, but it remains to be seen how successful they can be in removing the stigma from skilled trades among professional educators. The solution begins with convincing parents that a good career with above-average income does not always require a college education. Apprentice training also does not normally require any student loans because the employees are paid for going to school while they work to gain practical experience.
Apprentice training for electricians is conducted by the employer members of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) in cooperation with the Intl. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Apprenticeship programs are conducted by the Independent Electrical Contractors Intl., too. Through its associations, the industry conducts a national public relations effort to inform parents and counselors of its career-training programs. If you have family members or friends who are considering career options, visit (www.njatc.org) or (www.ieci.org) for more information.
One other thing: Utility workers are facing more concern for an assurance that their work will provide safe and reliable systems. While apprentice training prepares a worker with knowledge and skill, utilities still face the need for some assurance that the work is being done exactly as required to provide the safe and reliable systems required by consumers and building owners. Standards have been developed by manufacturer and engineer organizations for inclusion in contracts to help achieve that result. But, documented forensic studies of utility-fault analysis still points to the field workmanship as the weakest link in the chain. In particular, power-distribution systems are most vulnerable at points of cable splicing and terminations that must be fabricated on-site. Here, too, the industry is responding with a new solution.
The National Cable Splicing Certification Board (NCSCB) is an independent, non-profit body organized to provide third-party verification of knowledge and demonstration of skills that will help assure power system specifiers of reliable, quality workmanship in the splicing of medium voltage (2.1kV to 35kV) cables. It also will enable the recognition and certification of qualified personnel who perform this crucial task in the manner required for safe, reliable operation of medium-voltage power-distribution systems. The NCSCB is supported by leading suppliers of medium-voltage insulated cable, cable splicing and termination kits, engineering groups, utilities, contractors, and workers employed in the trade. NCSCB President Steve Anderson observes, “[Whenever] I talk about the board, people never ask me why we are doing this, but [why] we did not do it sooner.”
The NCSCB is not a training organization, so applicants for cable-splicing certification may come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. As such, certification will be earned by workers who pass both written and practical examinations without stipulating training prerequisites; however, applicants will need at least 2 years of experience in splicing and terminating medium-voltage cable to apply for certification, which will remain effective for 3 years. Testing and demonstration sites may be arranged by the NCSCB with sponsoring organizations, such as utilities, contractors, and apprentice-training schools that wish to certify qualified candidates, as long as required minimum attendance is obtained. Building owners who employ their own work crews might also sponsor the certifications.
Specifiers of medium-voltage cable installations may obtain the assurance of certified workers by including this phrase in the appropriate section of construction contract documents: “All splices and terminations of medium-voltage cables will be performed by, or under the direct supervision of, personnel certified by the National Cable Splicing Certification Board.” Visit the website at (www.ncscb.org) for more information as the program unfolds.