Energy, like so many other industries, is on the lookout for skilled workers to replace those who are retiring in droves every year. In 2017, the Quadrennial Energy Review (QER), an analysis of the nation’s energy challenges published every four years by the U.S. Department of Energy, estimated that 25 percent of electric and natural gas utility employees will be ready to retire within five years.

That same report included other alarming statistics: While the industry will need 105,000 new workers by 2030, only 25,000 existing personnel are actually interested in filling those positions. As a result, about 80,000 workers will need to be recruited and trained.

The worker shortage created by retirements has taken on more urgency because of the growing need for help with major pipeline rehabilitation and replacement projects of the nation’s aging natural gas infrastructure across the country. And discoveries of huge reserves of shale gas are creating the need for new pipelines to carry the gas to market.

However, one of the main issues that hiring managers in the energy industry are facing is the amount of time needed to get new workers up to speed on the skills they need. The QER states that “even if enrollment in apprenticeships and training programs increased today, sector employees would not be ready to enter the job market until years from now.”

GTI has been a leading research and development organization for the natural gas industry for more than 75 years. GTI also has a long history of training the next-generation workforce, offering open enrollment and onsite courses for students across the globe. Recognizing the need to offset the worker shortage and to provide the on-the-job apprentice-level training that many utilities and contractors simply can’t afford, GTI is bringing its performance-based skills training model directly into the field at local training venues across the country.

See also: A San Diego HVAC Firm Goes Back to School to Solve the Labor Shortage

From Black to Blue

The first GTI initiative was launched in Appalachia, where more than 23,000 coal jobs have been lost since 2011. There, GTI developed a program, called “From Black to Blue,” originally designed to retrain displaced coal workers for jobs at natural gas utilities. Patrick Findle, senior program manager at GTI, sought funding support for the program from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), whose mission is to fund training programs that strengthen the region’s economy.

“While ARC grants target displaced coal workers, we found in the course of developing our program that the impact of the decline of coal has had a much broader impact across the area,” Findle says. “Because so many of the businesses that supported the coal industry have left the area or cut back, for example, there are simply not as many job opportunities for members of these communities.”

As a result, the program was open to anyone who wanted to take advantage of this four-week, work-ready training to ready them for a high-paying career.

The good news is that, in the northeast U.S., there’s a significant need for new hires to help with major pipeline upgrades and build-outs. “Utilities and their contractors need skilled workers to help them replace old lines and build new lines, especially in this region, with all the gas they’re finding here,” Findle says.

Findle and his team adapted GTI’s natural gas field skills training modules as part of a program to provide folks in the area with an overview of the skills needed by pipeline operators. “We worked closely with NiSource and Peoples Natural Gas of Pittsburgh to inform the curriculum,” he says. “Our field skills modules are the technical piece. We added units on employability skills and safety to provide a well-rounded introduction to the industry.”

Classes averaged 10 to 15 students with varying backgrounds and interests, including military service, farming, landscape and facilities management.

“They ranged from fresh out of high school to 50-somethings looking for better careers,” says Findle. “They’re all adult learners looking to advance their careers, so they were serious about getting the most out of the course.”

Utilities and their contractors need skilled workers to help them replace old lines and build new lines, especially in [Appalachia], with all the gas they’re finding here. — Patrick Findle, senior program manager at GTI

Instructors for the technical field skills section of the course were retired utility workers. “We had a couple for each class and they proved to be very effective, because they’ve seen and done it all,” Findle says. Safety trainers provided OSHA 10 certification and instructors from technical or community colleges taught employability skills, which included communication and resume building.

During the 2018 “Black to Blue” course, GTI held eight classes at training venues in southwestern Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio. Each course included classroom instruction blended with field trips to worksites and training facilities where students gained hands-on experience. The last day of each course included presentations by the hiring companies with Q&As with the students, followed by opportunities for students to start conversations with company representatives about employment.

Students were able to quickly jump on the track to getting hired and the results have been very gratifying.

“Some students were hired within a week, and one student was hired even before the class was over. In fact, we’re approaching 60 percent placement and, when you factor in hiring cycles, we hope to grow the numbers even beyond that,” Findle says.

Building Awareness, Interest and Value

GTI plans to roll out the program to other communities and regions of the country. Funding is one major challenge. Although there was no course fee for students for the initial program, GTI estimates the value of the course to be about $5,000 per student, which covers the cost of instructors, field trips, materials and more.

“To make it sustainable, our hope is that hiring companies will start funding the program. Because they view the course as a feeder for candidates they can hire, it makes the most sense and it’s more sustainable than getting grants,” Findle says.

The other challenge is finding the right people.

“There’s a lot of work available out there, but finding entry-level field people is a cost and a challenge,” Findle says. “It all starts with a lack of awareness about the industry. It doesn’t have a very romantic reputation among younger folks. They’re not aware of how great a job this is — with starting salaries at about $40,000 to $50,000 — and what an important impact the industry has on the country. Everybody wants to have an impact with what they’re doing. There certainly is a great career awaiting them with this industry.”

ABOUT Julia Bailey

Avatar photoJulia Bailey is a Chicago-based B2B writer whose articles have appeared in "American Gas Magazine" and other publications serving the energy industry. She has also written articles, white papers and case studies for leading marketers in the financial, tech and healthcare spaces, including Bank of America, Discover Card, Motorola, Zebra Technologies, and many hospital publications. Prior to working as an independent writer, Julia led creative teams at J. Walter Thompson and other Chicago agencies. An avid reader, jazz lover and baseball fan, she can see Wrigley Field from her apartment.