How One Utility Giant Created Its Own Pipeline of Skilled Workers

A California power company developed a unique in-house training program after facing a major worker shortage.

PG&E hiring managers, contractors, and other regional employers meet the soon-to-be graduates of the company's training program at a PowerPathway Employer Day event in California. (National Journal)

This is the second in a weeklong series that examines different programs around the country that try to tackle the unemployment crisis and keep Americans connected to the workforce.

James Aton faced life without the military in 2012 for the first time in nearly a decade. He had a child on the way and had never filled out a resume before.

The 31-year-old saw his tenure in the Navy end when cutbacks led to the forced discharge of thousands of sailors, he says. "Even though I'm losing my career," he remembers, "it's giving me an opportunity to rebuild."

His first step was enrolling in a WyoTech, a school that offers technical trade programs, to build on the skills he had acquired as an aviation electrician in the Navy. There, he heard from a fellow veteran about PowerPathway, a 10-week program run by Pacific Gas and Electric to train future utility workers in northern and central California.

As one of 1,400 applicants, Aton earned his way into the program's 28-member class. For two and a half months, he trained with PG&E from early in the morning until late at night. The grueling hours weren't the only hardships. Asked how the PowerPathway experience compared to boot camp, he laughed. "The physical aspect of it was actually harder than anything in the Navy," Aton said. "The workouts and exercises had me more toned than I was in the military." The physical training was important, Aton said, because line workers often have to clamber up utility poles carrying heavy equipment.

Today, Aton is a few months into his new job at PG&E, working as a gas utility operator in Oakland, Calif., and earning a stable income. But don't think of him as the only beneficiary of the company's training program. Everything that can be said about Aton — in a tough spot, needing to adapt, and dealing with new workforce realities — can also be said of his huge utility-company employer.

PG&E is one of many utilities bracing for a "silver tsunami," a term that its workforce development head James Morante uses to describe the impending retirement of many of the company's older workers. The Aspen Institute estimates nearly half of the country's skilled energy and utility technician workers will need to be replaced by 2015.

Rather than waiting for that void to appear, PG&E has tried to develop the workforce to fill it, and in doing so, has created a training model for other industries with hard-to-fill positions. Since 2008, PowerPathway has turned out 450 graduates, more than 80 percent of whom get hired into the industry. The company says applicants are eager to commit to the program because entry-level positions can pay around $26 an hour, plus overtime.

The programs can vary widely, depending on the workers' skill set and the needs of the industry. Some prepare workers for welding. Others train line workers, while other programs teach gas operations.

Getting a job after the program is not guaranteed, but PowerPathway makes its graduates "much more viable candidates for PG&E and the industry in general," Morante said.

The program also allows the company to fill its ranks with better-prepared workers. Employees hired from the program "really hit the ground running and have more awareness about the company and the culture," he says. "PowerPathway takes the guesswork out of entry-level position hiring." In addition, program graduates have lower attrition rates and progress quicker than other hires once they join the company, Morante says.

The company works with community colleges and local governments' workforce-investment boards to offer PowerPathway. It began offering military-specific programs in 2009 when one of its partners earned a veterans-only grant. In 2013, 100 out of 250 program graduates were veterans. The focus on hiring military members, Morante says, comes from PG&E President Tony Earley, himself a former Navy officer.

As the program has developed, its leaders have discovered former service members make ideal candidates to meet its demands — irregular hours, technical challenges, and physically trying tasks. Recent veterans are also one of the groups hardest hit by the recession; in November 2013, post-9/11 veterans faced a 10 percent unemployment rate.

In addition to learning technical skills, PowerPathway tries to bolster its candidates communication skills. "It was my first time ever trying to write a resume," Aton said. The program helped him highlight his leadership roles, technical skills, and safety experience.

For its participants, the training program offers a way to find a good-paying job. And, for PG&E, it's a pipeline to fill a quickly growing workforce void. "It's a huge challenge," Aton said. "Every step of it, you're learning something new." That learning has paid off — for him and the company.