By David Kligman
STOCKTON—PG&E met with U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney to share how the utility has been successfully recruiting and training military veterans, who will provide a key talent pool in an industry that could lose as many as half its workforce in the next five years due to a potential wave of retirements.
During the visit Tuesday (Sept. 4) at PG&E’s Energy Training Center, the congressman said the issue is one that’s close to him. He was inspired to run for office by his son, who sought and received a commission in the Air Force following the attacks of Sept. 11. McNerney, a Democrat who represents most of San Joaquin County and parts of Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara counties, currently serves on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“When you go to Congress you really can only take two, maybe three issues of your own,” McNerney said. “Otherwise you just don’t have the bandwidth. And this is one of the issues I’ve really taken on.”
Veteran hired by PG&E: ‘This thing works’
After a tour of the center, McNerney met Erick Varela, who graduated from the PowerPathway program and even lived out of his car with his wife during the four-month training.
Varela, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, said finding work was impossible after his military career ended. His luck changed in 2008 when he saw a link on PG&E’s web site recruiting veterans for the PowerPathway program.
“Basically we were homeless during the class,” said Varela, who was a contractor for PG&E for several years and is now a substation maintenance electrician based in Eureka.
“I tried the government,” he said. “I tried going through the military. It wasn’t there. PG&E and their private sector created this program that changed my life. I can’t go in front of Congress and say, ‘Hey, this thing works.’ I don’t have that power. That’s where I come to you.”
Also joining the discussion was Bill Harper, PG&E’s vice president of talent management and chief diversity officer, who said he was looking to the congressman to help the visibility of the program. Launched in 2008, the PowerPathway program is a public-private workforce development network involving community colleges, workforce investment boards, employers and others. This collaboration has led to targeted job training and placement programs that have graduated some 150 veterans, with more than 100 now working in the industry.
PG&E has found that veterans have valuable skills and experience that with additional training make them strong candidates for utility work. [See a Currents video from earlier this year on a PowerPathway pole-climbing exercise.]
While the program has been successful, many veterans aren’t aware it exists. Federal support at the state and local levels is important so that programs like PowerPathway can continue to grow and deliver results.
PG&E also was looking for McNerney’s support to update the Workforce Investment Act, which provides significant federal support for Americans seeking assistance to obtain, retain or change employment. However, needed substantive changes, such as improving private sector engagement opportunities, have gone without action for nearly a decade, PG&E Federal Affairs Manager Chris Foster said.
McNerney said he was impressed with PG&E’s program and its tour of its Stockton center, which trains students in energy audits.
He suggested a “very lean program” free of bureaucracy that would assist companies that want to follow PG&E’s lead. He said he wants to gather more information on PowerPathway so that “we can move aggressively when the opportunity is there.”
“I am glad that PG&E has taken such initiative to hire our returning heroes,” McNerney said. “It is one of my priorities to help our servicemen and women successfully transition their skills to the civilian workforce. These brave men and women have sacrificed for us, and we owe it to them to provide the best services possible upon their return—a responsibility I am pleased PG&E is taking seriously.”
Special outreach to veterans
McNerney and PG&E will be at a job fair at the University of the Pacific in Stockton on Sept. 18. The event will showcase PG&E and other companies with specific initiatives to hire veterans.
Rob Roffey, who heads PG&E’s Veterans Employee Resource Group, a new group for employees interested in veterans’ issues, recently received a phone call from someone in the Marine Corps about to return to civilian life. The man, from Yuma, Ariz., had heard about the PowerPathway program and wanted more information.
Roffey said he could sense in the man’s voice that he was getting desperate to find work.
“It’s pretty scary,” said Roffey, who served in the Marine Corps himself for 10 years. “You get institutionalized and you get used to programs that support you in every phase of your life. Suddenly that just goes away. You don’t have a band of brothers looking out for you. You’re really on your own.”
Varela said if PG&E’s program could be expanded to other companies, veterans would jump at the chance—especially during a time for veterans that can be difficult transitioning to civilian life.
“I’ve lived and fought in Iraq as a combat infantryman and sniper,” he said. “There’s nothing in this country that I’m going to be scared to tackle.”
Email David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.