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Duke Energy Creates Jobs and Boosts Diversity, Talent Pool with Foundation Grants

image credit: Duke Energy
Rakesh  Sharma's picture
Journalist, Freelance Journalist

I am a New York-based freelance journalist interested in energy markets. I write about energy policy, trading markets, and energy management topics. You can see more of my writing...

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  • Aug 6, 2021

The utility industry has a workforce problem.


Even as an unprecedented energy transition has flooded the industry with new technologies and processes, making old ways of working redundant, the industry is facing an employee demographic problem. A new kind of employee, familiar with technology and informed about the new energy landscape, is needed. A 2017 report on workforce trends in the utility industry defined this new worker as one who is “adept in risk assessment, behavioral science, and familiar with cyber hygiene.”


The currents of social justice have also radically reshaped the employment market and a diverse workforce, once an afterthought, has become a necessity. As I have written before, while the upper echelons of utility companies are stacked with women, the ground view is less diverse. In fact, according to the 2017 report I referenced earlier, electricity and related industries employ fewer women and minorities than the national average.    


Duke Energy thinks it may have found a solution.


The North Carolina-based utility awarded $734,000 in strategic workforce development and education programs in Florida through its foundation. According to the press release, the grants are meant to help job seekers and students who are members of underrepresented groups, such as women and minorities, to prepare for employment, primarily in the energy sector.


The grants have a wide scope and are spread across various initiatives, from ones that teach financial literacy to immigrants to certificate programs for next generation energy entrepreneurs. The broad mandate is a deliberate strategy. While they benefit local communities and create jobs, the grants also enhance the utility’s workforce.


“Diversity is not just a metric,” says Ana Gibbs, spokesperson for Duke Energy. “A diverse workforce and leadership team offers various backgrounds and perspectives that allow us to be more innovative and mindful in how we create strategies and solutions to serve our customers and communities.


A Diverse Cohort of Recipients


One of the recipients of the Foundation’s grants is the Florida Chapter of American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE), which received $28,000.


“When students in our community are young, all they see are police officers and that’s what they want to become,” says Kathy Judkins, president of the organization. Their acquaintance with the utility industry is limited to either line workers or “the person who turns the switch on or off” (presumably, a reference to the meter reader), she says. The absence of exposure to a potentially lucrative career means that they have little knowledge about the industry’s workings or the breadth of opportunities available in it. Gibbs agrees with Judkins narrative, adding that the industry can “offer an alternative for those who may choose a different path than going to college.”  


Judkins herself took a circuitous route to the industry. Her cousin urged her to explore employment prospects at local utilities after graduation. She didn’t and, instead, opted to work as director at a workforce development organization for more than a decade. When she got a job at SECO energy as a senior consultant, Judkins was surprised at the variety of jobs available to her. “I realized that the industry touches every facet of business,” she says.


To that end, AABE intends to use the grant’s funds to provide a comprehensive view of the industry to students. It will conduct tours of power plants and renewable energy facilities for participants in its Youth Energy Academy. In addition, it plans to organize a two-day exposure for displaced workers who missed college and are interested in going back. Finally, the funds will provide scholarship opportunities to engineering students. (Duke Energy was the first energy company to sign up for the HBCU partnership challenge created by the bipartisan HBCU caucus).


Along with disbursing funds to traditional workforce development programs, the foundation is also distributing money to immigrant community organizations and programs that prepare students for the next generation of jobs in the energy industry.


For example, Project Prosper, which conducts financial literacy classes for refugees and immigrants, has received $10,000. The Tampa, Fla.– based organization intends to use the funds to develop special topic classes and its digital e-learning initiatives.


Another recipient is the University of Florida’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. The university intends to use its funds to create a Energy Sustainability Technology and Resiliency Testing Hub and Certificate Program. The program will create training and research opportunities in advanced energy generation storage and grid resiliency technology, says Dr. Jonathan Scheffe, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the university. “This will develop the workforce for this critical industry so that student experience reflects the future needs of energy,” he says.


A Foundation’s Business Strategy  


Attracting new workers to the industry is only part of the story, however. The energy transition is hurtling along at an increased pace under the current administration, bringing with it new jobs and opportunities.


“The renewable energy sector is exciting for our undergraduate and graduate students but there are relatively few opportunities there compared to traditional energy sector jobs,” says Dr. Scheffe. Those traditional sector energy jobs have few takers because they are not seen as “new and exciting” by students.


Covid-19 has skewed the employment situation in the utility industry. The industry already faces a demographic problem in its ranks. A report from consulting firm KPMG earlier this year states that unemployment in the power and utility industry has increased since the shutdown.


Duke Energy’s grants create a pipeline of workers for the company. “It is mutually beneficial to provide students the best training while reducing (in house) training expenses,” explains Gibbs. For example, the company’s partnership with St. Petersburg College in Florida trains them on the same tools and requirements for a line worker as those required for a job at the company.


There is another advantage to the partnership. “When we hire local, they (the hires) are much more likely to stay with us,” says Gibbs. The first graduating class at St. Petersburg provided the utility with four workers and Gibbs estimates that those numbers could grow to 30 per year with a class size that grows each year.


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