What’s wrong with this picture? Many of the California counties served by Pacific Gas and Electric Company suffer from double-digit unemployment, while the company worries where we’ll find enough skilled people to replace the more than 40 percent of our workforce that will be eligible for retirement over the next five years. The mismatch between the skills of job seekers and employer needs is holding up growth across our economy.
That’s why the April 16 announcement by the White House of plans to invest $500 million remaining in the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program, and $100 million budgeted from apprenticeship programs this year, is welcome news. If used wisely, these grants will spur productivity and economic growth by targeting training to fit current, real-world needs and create a body of skilled workers able to fill them.
Several years ago, PG&E became acutely aware of our need to find skilled workers to help us build, operate, and maintain 21st century energy infrastructure. We now invest about $5 billion a year in our electric and gas systems, from new gas pipelines to intelligent electric switches that sense problems and re-route power automatically to avoid outages. As we adopt more and more clean energy, advanced energy storage, and Smart Grid technology, we and other utilities need well-trained, versatile workers, capable of handling the latest tools and technology.
Unfortunately, finding candidates off the street with the requisite skill set proved difficult. So in 2008, we took matters into our own hands and launched the PowerPathway program in collaboration with local community colleges. It provides short-term education and training to support individuals seeking skilled crafts careers in the energy sector, not just at PG&E.
In 2013, the program graduated a diverse class of 250 students, many of them veterans. More than 80 percent of those graduates have found well-paying work at PG&E or other utilities, often through apprenticeship programs jointly designed by the company and the union.
One such graduate in 2009 was Erick Varela, a U.S. Army combat veteran who served in Iraq, only to find himself unemployed after returning home in the midst of the national recession.
“I was motivated to work,” Varela said. “And I knew I could contribute to society like I had in the military, but I felt helpless, lost and more importantly a disappointment and failure to my family.”
Hope returned when PG&E accepted him into the PowerPathway program, and then hired him as an IBEW apprentice electrician in 2010. “The work PG&E provided restored my purpose in life and they gave me a sense of direction once again,” Varela said.
The IBEW has 65 years of experience working with management to craft world-class electrical trade apprenticeship programs in the electrical trade which are constantly adapting to meet the demands of new technology and the changing demands of the market.
With the right kind of training, and the right commitment of resources, thousands of motivated individuals like Varela can get launched in productive and well paid careers. While a four-year college degree is a worthy goal, apprenticeships and targeted training should also have their place in the national vision as pathways to spur growth and provide a viable career path for millions of our young people.
The White House got it right with their new investment in skills training. The American people will be the winners.
Tony Earley is Chairman, CEO, and President of PG&E Corporation, one of the country’s largest gas and electric utilities, serving 15 million people and 21,000 employees. Edwin D. Hill is the International President for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which represents approximately 725,000 members in utilities, construction and other major industries.