Posted on May 22, 2012

Earley: Hiring Veterans a Key Strategy as Utility’s Workforce Ages

By David Kligman

As a former officer in the U.S. Navy, PG&E Chairman, CEO and President Tony Earley knows the valuable skills veterans can offer companies like PG&E looking for qualified employees to replace an aging workforce.

“Now heading a utility based in California, I know the devastation of high unemployment numbers,” Earley said at a panel discussion today (May 22) at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. “And as a veteran myself, I know the skills that our returning veterans have.”

Moderator Kathleen Koch was joined, from left, by Tony Earley, retired Gen. Jim Jones, Sean Cartwright from the U.S. Department of Labor, Kevin Schmiegel from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Emily DeRocco, former assistant secretary of labor employment and training. (Photos by Kristina Sherk.)

The forum, held a few days before Memorial Day, was an opportunity to discuss a workforce crossroads for the utility industry.

By the end of 2013, as many as 40 percent of electric utility employees will be eligible for retirement. In addition, the industry will have to replace about 58,000 skilled craft workers and 11,000 engineers while adding an additional 150,000 skilled craft workers over the next decade to accommodate massive infrastructure and technology investments.

PG&E forecasts more than 40 percent of its workforce to become eligible for retirement within the next five years.

“Our industry faces a number of challenges,” Earley said. “We need to have a pipeline of people coming in.”

The discussion, moderated by former CNN correspondent Kathleen Koch, also included former National Security Advisor and retired Gen. James L. Jones; Kevin Schmiegel, U.S. Marine Corps vice president and executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Emily DeRocco, former assistant secretary of labor employment and training; and Sean Cartwright, chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.

Schmiegel dismissed the idea that the effort by PG&E and other companies to hire veterans was being done to simply give veterans a hand. It does that, but it’s really a way for companies to find great talent, he said.

“We don’t want this to be seen as a charity,” Schmiegel said. “As a veteran myself, this is an opportunity. You look at World War II. We had millions of veterans coming home, infusing the workplace with incredible talent and look what happened to our manufacturing sector. Look what happened to our economy. This is an opportunity for America.”

Earley added that veterans have special skills that set them apart, including productivity, work ethic and loyalty.

Tony Earley, PG&E’s chairman, CEO and president, said veterans have the training and skills needed for utility jobs.

“We’re trying to figure out the return on our investment,” Earley said. “We think it’s going to be very good. First of all, you get people to the workforce faster. If we can save six months getting somebody out in the field, that’s a huge investment. We think we can justify it just on a return on investment.”

In his introductory remarks, Earley recognized Erick Varela, a U.S. Army veteran and a heavy machine operator by trade, who attended the forum. He returned to his home in the San Joaquin Valley in 2008, couldn’t find a job due to the housing crisis and soon was homeless. He took part in PG&E’s veteran’s programs and today is an apprentice electrician with the utility.

Varela received applause from the panel.

[Meet Dustin Chappel, who once detonated roadside explosives in Iraq and now works for PG&E.]

Recruiting veterans already is a big focus for PG&E, which hired 225 veterans in 2011 or about 7 percent of its total hires. The attention from PG&E and other organizations comes as the unemployment rate of veterans is nearly 40 percent higher than the general population.

PG&E’s efforts give back to those who have given so much for their country.

Earley, Feinstein and vets

PG&E Chairman Tony Earley and employee/veterans Robert (Rob) Roffey and Erick Varela joined U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein this week during a visit to Washington, D.C. Roffey is president of PG&E’s internal Veterans Employee Resource Group, and Varela is an apprentice electrician.

“They’ve sacrificed their lives for our country, and providing them with opportunities is the right thing to do,” said Shanne Malilay, who oversees PG&E’s veteran recruiting effort.  “They also have a strong work ethic, an appreciation for the importance of safety and teamwork, and excellent communication and leadership skills.”

He added that veterans don’t get a preference over non-veterans to join the utility.

“They still have to be a qualified candidate,” Malilay said.

But for the organization, the message it wants to send is that PG&E is a veteran-friendly organization. And it’s doing that in a lot of ways to recruit and assist military members—some who are no longer in the service and those preparing to leave:

  • Training network. As part of its PowerPathway program, PG&E collaborates with local community colleges and non-profit training centers, the public workforce development system, unions and other industry employers to enlarge the talent pool of qualified candidates for entry-level skilled crafts jobs, such as utility workers.
  • Career events. PG&E recruiters regularly attend job fairs, including ProjectHIRED’s Wounded Warrior Workforce Conference in Monterey in June and two Recruit Military job fairs in Oakland. The goal is to increase the number of events, thereby increasing veteran hiring.
  • Sponsorships. The company has provided grants to several conferences aimed at veterans. And it is one of five utilities involved in the Troops to Energy Jobs initiative, an industry-wide collaboration to establish a national standard to recruit and train veterans for careers in energy.
  • Transition services. PG&E assists with the Transition Assistance Program, a Department of Defense program that provides career coaching and tools for returning veterans—everything from resume preparation to interview questions to negotiating a salary.
  • Career and networking sessions. ProjectHIRED, a nonprofit that helps those with disabilities find jobs, has invited the utility to speak at networking events providing veterans with information on jobs and employment trends.

Within PG&E, the utility has quickly grown a veterans’ employee resource group, which is open to all employees regardless of veteran status, as well as honorary membership to company retirees and family members of the military. The group began last fall with five members and now numbers more than 100.

E-mail David Kligman at david.kligman@pge.com.

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