Need for Utility Workers Is a Problem and an Opportunity

Recent weather has shown how vulnerable we are -- not just in terms of susceptibility to nature's brute force, but also in terms of our workforce. In the days following superstorm Sandy, as well as after Tropical Storm Irene last year, thousands of crews from other parts of the state and country came here to help restore power and repair the system.

Though Long Island Power Authority chief Michael Hervey said this week that the sheer number of workers who arrived overwhelmed repair efforts, the stark fact is that experienced utility workers are an increasingly rare commodity. The average U.S. utility worker is close to 50 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Center for Energy Workforce Development -- a nonprofit consortium of electric, natural gas and nuclear utilities -- estimates that about 40 percent of the nation's energy workers will be retiring or otherwise leaving the industry by 2015. More than three out of five line superintendents -- the most experienced workers, who manage the construction, operation, maintenance and repair of electrical distribution lines -- are age 50 or older, according to a study by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

We cannot train replacements for these workers fast enough. The workforce development center's surveys find that energy companies are having a hard time finding employees with the needed skills. And as we know so well, our electrical system is complex, patched together, and extremely vulnerable to disruption of any sort. Though we talk in terms of an electrical grid, it's really more like a maze that in the best-case scenarios has only a few alternate routes around any given trouble spot.