Labor looks to plug skills gap in energy workforce

Labor has so far taken the lead in developing school curricula and workforce training programs for industries like natural gas and advanced electric grid technology, Oates said at a Washington, D.C., event hosted by National Journal.

Last month, the Labor Department awarded a $15 million grant to a workforce development program run by community colleges in western Pennsylvania.

That program, known as ShaleNET, feeds workers into the region’s booming natural gas industry. Energy firms have donated equipment to the effort — which started with a $4.9 million Labor Department grant in 2010 — and offer work opportunities.

She said that program, if successful, could be duplicated in places like North Dakota, where a large shale formation with hard-to-reach oil has attracted investment.

“We need to make sure we have the right conversations to get those programs going,” Oates said. “And if they’re federally funded, we need to be sure that other colleges across the country can take advantage of them, and we don’t have to start at square one.”

Oates envisions those programs becoming more of a public-private effort, with industry and trade groups pitching in to design and fund programs for jobs they need to fill.

Several trade groups already participate in a nonprofit consortium created to develop required skills through apprenticeship opportunities and school curricula. 

Called the Center for Energy Workforce Development, the nearly 7-year-old group includes the American Gas Association, Edison Electric Institute, Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Such efforts are important for the electric utility industry, which Southern Company CEO Susan Story said is facing a “retirement bubble.” She estimated between 40-50 percent of her utility’s workforce could retire in the next decade.

Many of those retirees are leaving a changing electric utility industry, and the educational curriculum needs to adapt with those changes as well, Story said.

“Smart” grid technology, which incorporates information technology along with electric engineering, calls for a new set of skills. Story said many utilities are finding it difficult to find qualified employees to fill those spots.

“There’s huge technological advances, so how do we make sure we can have a workforce who can work in that environment?” she said. “In education and skill development, we can’t sit back until the schools deliver us this and, oh, goodness, you failed us. We have to be involved.”

Congress could address the immediate skills gap through immigration reform.

Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) STEM Jobs Act would have increased the number of green cards available to foreign-born graduates with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

That bill failed in the House, largely because the bill would have eliminated a visa program for immigrants from underrepresented nations Democrats wanted to maintain.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sponsor bills with similar aims, but that leave the visa program intact.

Oates, however, does not see such immigration initiatives and the workforce gap as “directly related.” She said enough U.S. schools and students exist to fill local utility and energy jobs, and that vocational training are sometimes more effective in those industries than advanced degrees.

“I think that utility jobs are in every community and I think there are people that we can train to fill those jobs,” Oates told The Hill. “So I don’t think we’re going to find the need to be dependent on outside labor."