How utility companies, faced with aging workforce, are finding ways to appeal to potential workers

Water utility leader Mark McDonough wouldn’t argue that a 5-foot hole where a broken pipe fountains up freezing water doesn’t appear to be the most inviting place, especially in the cold of a 2 a.m. shift. He suspects that may deter some young people from utility work.

In fact, he’s certain it does.

Mark McDonough.

But, he and other utility leaders want to paint another image for a so-far missing next generation contingent of utility workers. …

“There’s an importance to human life in this work,” he said. “They’re not just selling or making widgets. They’re having a real impact every day.”

New Jersey’s utilities have doubled down on messaging, education, training and recruitment programs to bring in young professionals who can be successors to a fast-retiring workforce. They believe (and hope) it’s making a difference.

McDonough is president of New Jersey American Water, the state subsidiary of the country’s largest water utility, Camden-based American Water. From where he sits, he can tell the need is profound.

“We have half of the workforce approaching retirement age, and another significant percentage reaching that age within five years,” he said. “And we realize there’s not a lot of 12-year-olds lying awake at night, thinking, ‘I can’t wait to work at a wastewater plant someday.’”

That’s why his utility is among those making more capital expenditures each year to grow various initiatives across the utility’s Garden State footprint.

In fall 2021, New Jersey American Water launched a free training program called Water UP! The Camden-based initiative, which was meant to create career paths for individuals within underserved communities in the company’s service areas, will welcome its third cohort this September.

“I think that, in underserved communities in particular, there’s some distrust perhaps of water purveyors in certain areas, but, as they get this opportunity to see it from the inside, they’re drawn into the tremendous work we can do every day,” McDonough said.

McDonough said there’s a chance for a utility such as his to introduce new vocations to a generation who haven’t historically been in those roles. It doesn’t want to miss that opportunity, he said.

“Because, not only do we have a great story to tell, we believe those professionals from underserved communities, viewing the opportunities for generational wealth change in largely union work, won’t follow the same trends you hear about of young people moving around from jobs,” he said.

Rich Henning.

That’s the sort of long-term view that Rich Henning, CEO and president of the New Jersey Utilities Association, which represents the state’s investor-owned utilities, said a lot of utility executives have taken. They expect these initiatives to pay dividends in the future, and to upend a dynamic where most high school graduates don’t know much about utility work — or utilities at all.

Henning said most utilities center those efforts around the communities they serve. From its more holistic, statewide perspective, the New Jersey Utilities Association has looked to offer educational programs and scholarship support to all young Jerseyans interested in the environmental, engineering, communications or other utility-connected fields.

Of course, it realizes there are a lot of different industries vying for the attention of those just entering the workforce. Henning sits on Hackensack Meridian Health‘s board, where he constantly hears about shortages in young nurses, doctors and other posts in health care.

“We’re up against competition from virtually every sector in business, there’s no way to put it more bluntly,” he said. “So many industries are wondering, with a knowledgeable workforce entering retirement age … where is the next-generation workforce coming from?”

The pitch utilities are giving to the next generation of workers is that — hard as some of the work may be, as McDonough’s image of the early-morning pipe-break alluded to — utilities offer the chance for work that has more of an impact on the environment than most careers.

“Being able to learn about how you can make your environment better and get involved with making a difference is something young students have a commitment to,” Henning said. “And, being honest, that’s not something I was thinking about as much graduating from Rutgers at 22 years old.”

Steve Fleischer.

Steve Fleischer, a hiring leader at Public Service Enterprise Group, expressed that there’s no fooling young graduates into thinking utility work bests the excitement of a career in entertainment or technology. And, even as a Fortune 500 company, a utility such as Newark-based PSEG isn’t as well-known nationally as other publicly traded brands, Fleischer admitted.

But the younger generation’s appreciation of environmental stewardship and diversity, equity & inclusion work is evident, said Fleischer, senior director of DEI and talent acquisition and human resources operations at PSEG.

“What I love about recruiting for Gen Z is that what they’re looking for in an employer is unique, so we get to think about how we can market ourselves to what they’re looking for,” he said. “They want to see an inclusive workplace — not just for the groups they identify with, but inclusion across the board. Money and culture for them are equally important. Many tell us that they wouldn’t work for a company that doesn’t align with their values.”

As part of its internship relationships with colleges, PSEG has forged partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Hampton University in Virginia and Howard University in Washington, D.C. Fleischer said it’s also connected with Hispanic-serving institutions as part of its college training and hiring initiatives, as well as local institutions such as Rutgers University and New Jersey Institute of Technology.

On top of that, the energy company, which has built a workforce that’s about 8% Gen Z, has focused on trade schools of community colleges.

“What we’re finding is that, with Gen Z, not everyone is rushing off to college,” Fleischer said. “So, for us, trade schools, and even high schools, are a really valuable pipeline. Approximately two-thirds of our workforce is union jobs, so there’s a lot of skilled trades and physical roles, and not everyone needs to go to college for those roles.”

When it comes to inviting the next generation of workers, no local utility wants to be left out.

FirstEnergy, a national electric utility that has a local footprint with Jersey Central Power & Light, is currently rebuilding a long-running training program into an apprenticeship program that could launch sometime next year.

The former program focused on education and led participants to their associate degree. The new model brings new recruits closer to veteran utility crews for hands-on mentorship. A spokesman said, importantly, that this would allow them to earn a salary as they train, and is more in line with what peer utilities around the country are transitioning to.

Karen Phillips.

Folsom-based South Jersey Industries, a holding company that delivers utility services through its South Jersey Gas and Elizabethtown Gas subsidiaries, has, like other utilities, found attracting and retaining laborers challenging, given decreases in the number of high school graduates pursuing work in this field.

Karen Phillips, chief HR officer at SJI, said that’s why it engages local youth in a wide range of education and training programs, including the IGNITE Internship Program and the POWER Leadership Development Program. In 2021, SJI’s utilities also partnered with the Mark Cuban Foundation to host free AI-focused bootcamps at its Atlantic City and Union bases.

“As SJI continues to grow, we’re always looking for the next generation of innovative and adaptable candidates to join our team and help us fulfill our mission of delivering safe, reliable, affordable clean energy,” Phillips said. “The importance of having a prepared and highly trained workforce to support the continued delivery of safe, reliable service cannot be understated.”