Podcast / Audio

Episode #30: 'Think Your Utility Has Recruiting Challenges? Try Hiring in Alaska!' with Shirley Akelkok of Matanuska Electric Association - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

Posted to Energy Central in the HR & Recruitment Group
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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

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  • Mar 16, 2021 12:30 pm GMT
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The HR departments across the utility sector are facing numerous challenges as they continue to develop and build up the workforce of the power sector. Not only is there the brain drain being experienced as career-long employees continue to hit retirement age at record pace, but recruiting for the best and brightest out of school is pitting utilities against Silicon Valley, big tech, and more. That means the utility recruiter needs to get smarter, more deliberate, and highlight the unique aspects of the utility business to attract and retain the best talent. For the guest of today’s episode of the podcast, that imperative is in overdrive because she also has to demonstrate to recruits why moving out to Alaska can create such an appealing life and career, despite potential hesitations from applicants about leaving the contiguous United States and moving to a colder and more remote community.

Despite those hurdles, Shirley Akelkok shares with host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester all the ways that working in the Matanuska Valley has perks that can’t be replicated elsewhere. She also shares her wisdom of recruiting practices that are applicable no matter where your utility is visited, from focusing on relationship building to embracing site visits to selling positions as part of a lifestyle rather than just a job. Shirley’s commitment to her community is evident, and by the end of this episode she may just have you checking out property in America’s northernmost state.

Prefer to Read vs. Listening? Scroll Down to Read Transcript.

Thanks to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

 

Key Links

Shirley Akelkok’s Energy Central Profile: https://energycentral.com/member/profile/shirley-akelkok

Recruiting Experiences at Matanuska Electric Association: https://energycentral.com/c/hr/recruiting-experiences-matanuska-electric-association

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast. On this show, we bring in thought leaders and innovators from across the landscape of utilities to discuss what they're doing to keep the lights on and create the dynamic future of an energy tomorrow. I'm your host, Jason Price of West Monroe, and I'm coming to you from New York city. Joining me as producer of the podcast from Orlando, Florida is Matt Chester, Energy Central's community manager. The Energy Central community and platform was created to connect utility professionals from across the country and even the world, allowing community members to share their insights, no matter how far away they may be located. Matt, I know as part of your role as community manager, has you seeking to connect people from every corner of the country. And given our guests is joining us from a remote utility in Alaska, I think she might relate to the efforts you put in for that.

Matt Chester:

Well, we're just happy to have representation from all different areas and geographies of the utility sector. So I'm just glad to be adding another perspective to our conversations.

Jason Price:

Agreed. In this podcast, we typically focus on the core mission of the utilities, which is the generation of power and getting that electricity or wherever it's needed for the customer to make use of it. We've also heard a lot recently about the importance of data in that utility journey, becoming nearly as valuable as the energy itself. But today we're going to focus on the area of the utility business that too often goes overlooked by anyone who can simply count on the power to come on when they flip the switch on, and that's the hardworking utility employees making it happen every day.

Jason Price:

Utilities have large, dedicated and industrious employees along all levels of their business and working to make sure the workforce hums along smoothly are the human resource professionals tasked with recruiting, hiring and keeping safe and happy those employees. The utility sector has long been a gold standard of employers with many utility workers spending decade long careers with the same company, loyal and focused on the mission the whole time and receiving fair and desirable return for this dedication. But the new century and the growing workforce presence of new generations from gen X to millennials, and more means that the recruiting game is changing. For many new or young in the workforce, loyalty to a single company is less common. Diversity and opportunities and growth is a must have.

Jason Price:

And utilities find themselves frequently competing with companies in tech, innovative startups and other modern mission-driven companies for the best and brightest talent. Those challenges are enough for any seasoned HR professional, but as I teased earlier, our guest today has some additional hurdles in the way, thanks to being located in the rural Alaskan region. But before bringing her in to pick her brain about the unique challenges, but also encouraging opportunities in the utility HR space, we want to send a quick thanks to all our sponsors who make this production of the podcast possible.

Jason Price:

To West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities and their telecommunication grid modernization and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation, electrification, ADMS deployments, and DER and cybersecurity. To Esri, an international supplier of geographic information, GIS software, web GIS, and geo database management applications. To Anterix, focused on delivering transformative broadband that enables the modernization of critical infrastructure for the energy, transportation, logistics and other sectors of our economy.

Jason Price:

And to ScottMadden, a management consulting firms, serving clients across the energy utility ecosystem. Areas of focus include transmission and distribution, the grid edge, generation, energy markets, rates and regulations, corporate sustainability and corporate services. The firm helps clients develop and implement strategies, improve critical operations, reorganize departments in entire companies and implement myriad initiatives. Today's guest on the podcast is coming to us from Matsu Valley in Alaska, where she serves as recruiting and workforce development project manager at Matanuska Electric Association, or MEA. Shirley Akelkok joined Matanuska Electric Association in 2018. And her job consists of training development and recruiting of all MEA employees. Shirley recently joined the energy central community and shared on the platform and eye opening post about the history of MEA, Alaska's oldest existing and second largest electric cooperative and the unique challenges that she and her team face in the game of recruiting employees to the company.

Jason Price:

With over 51,000 members and 4,500 miles of power lines to their name, MEA is no small operation and the critical power services it delivers could not be more important. But keeping the utility staffed with the best possible employees can be a challenge. As mentioned earlier, the utility industry as a whole is facing tough competition to recruit the best and the brightest and the cost to train or retrain employees makes retention just as critical, but also challenging. On top of those industry-wide difficulties, Shirley noted in her article, that being outside of the continuous United States, having assets cited in the rugged climate and terrain, and simply being a bit more remote, only compounds those challenges.

Jason Price:

It's not all bad though. As once workers are trained and make Alaska their home, she finds that they tend to make Alaska their home forever. So where the challenges are unique, perhaps so too, are the rewards. In recognition of Energy Central's HR focus for this month, we're eager to gain insights from Shirley's experience and see what pearls of wisdom she can offer for her HR cohorts in utilities across the country, whether rural or urban, remote, or densely populated, co-op or investor owned. So let's just jump right into it. Shirley, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

Shirley Akelkok:

Thank you Jason, for having me here today. I'm super excited to be here and super excited to share what Matanuska Electric Association has to offer. First off, I guess I'd like to share that MEA is a cooperative. We are member owned. And for those people who are not familiar with what a cooperative is, it's a private, independent electric utility owned by the members we serve.

Shirley Akelkok:

We're organized under the cooperative principles. So we tend to be firm in our communities that we serve. And for MEA, this means there's heavy community involvement, such as participating, maybe in the 4th of July parade, scholarships that we offer to those advancing their education, maybe a pop-up ice cream stand in the summer, community means everything to us. We are located in Palmer, Alaska, which is approximately 42 miles from Anchorage, Alaska. And as of 2018, the population of Palmer was 7,306 and even at that, we were the eighth largest city in Alaska. So that tells you something, as far as the population in Alaska. Palmer is also home of the annual state fair. In the Matsu Valley, we have activities such as golfing if you can imagine that. Hiking, rafting, fishing, hunting, you can check out a glacier one day, then check out the Northern lights the next day, go dog sledding, or snowmobiling. Those are just some of the activities we have to offer in the Matsu Valley.

Jason Price:

Thank you, Shirley Matsu Valley sounds like a beautiful and a great place to settle and build a career and a family. Let's talk about the article you published in Energy Central. You highlighted how Alaska, not being part of the continuous United States, changes the calculus of the power grid. Since you can't simply rely upon neighboring states to make up for shortfall, you find yourself under. How has that reality influenced the Alaskan utilities and how they operate, assess their priorities and tackle the need for reliable and affordable power?

Shirley Akelkok:

So in a nutshell, the utilities up here have invested in significant generation assets to ensure we can reliably provide power. We probably have more generation capacity per capita than the continuous United States, because we have to be self-reliant. We are in Alaska, we are not part of the contiguous US.

Jason Price:

No, you operate in the HR department for MEA, and you've highlighted that recruiting for the jobs at your utility can be a particular challenge for all the reasons already stated. What does the recruitment process at MEA typically entail? Are you pulling talent in from regional schools? Are you reaching out to potential candidates in the contiguous US? Are you headhunting for executives who may be not familiar with the Alaskan landscape, but can bring new ways of thinking to roles? Talk to us about this experience.

Shirley Akelkok:

So recruiting in Alaska is definitely a creative process. We develop relationships with the local schools and colleges because we want community members to know of the careers that can be made at MEA. We engage in activities like bring your kid to work day, where we talk about everything MEA has to offer. I believe this has paid off because we have a few engineers who are lifelong Alaskans and who have made the Matsu Valley, their forever home. All of our positions are posted nationally via employment websites. In the past, we've had people hired from Pennsylvania, from California, but what we do maybe a little bit different is we bring candidates up for a site visit. They do a tour of our facilities, as well as the Matsu Valley. And this is done just to make sure that it's a fit for them and it's a fit for us.

Shirley Akelkok:

They're comfortable coming here and it's not going to be a huge shock. And of all of the onsite tours that I've conducted on behalf of MEA, we've had, I think most or all of the people hired actually, I think it is all.

Matt Chester:

I'd love to hear more about what the impression for people when they're coming to Alaska for the first time. What kind of surprises them the most or what's unexpected that they didn't anticipate learning while on that site visit?

Shirley Akelkok:

So with some of the candidates that we've had on onsite tours, some comments that I've heard are, "The air is so fresh here." They are amazed at the mountains that they see just surrounding them because we are surrounded by mountains left to right. A lot of people who come here are adventures. They are looking for the lifestyle where they can get off work at five and go climb a mountain that's just 20 minutes away, or they can go fishing and it's all within their grasp. It's all available. And again, this is definitely an adventure lifestyle.

Jason Price:

Can you share a bit about the training process once you do find new employees? How does your positioning in a rural Alaskan utility impact that process? And how have you seen training tools and strategies evolve in recent years with the advent of new technologies?

Shirley Akelkok:

Luckily with the advent of new technology, a lot of our training happens online. For the people who have to get training in the contiguous US, this means travel. So we don't have the option of simply driving 20 minutes to a training facility. For us to drive from where we're at to let's say Washington, that's going to take anywhere from three to five days. So a lot of our people that are doing training outside, and that's kind of the term that we use when traveling to the contiguous United States, people are flying rather than driving, rather than taking a bus, rather than getting on a train. All of those options are not available here. That being said, what we often do is we'll get a trainer to come to our site and conduct a training, especially if there are a group of employees that need the same training. Luckily though much of the training has been moving towards being online, and that platform really works for us.

Jason Price:

That's great to hear. In many ways, the positioning of MEA is unique compared with the more typical utility, but surely there are plenty of commonalities and perhaps you're in a position to offer unique lessons learned that other utilities haven't yet experienced. What do you think is the best example you've been able to set at MEA for the wider utility sector? Not just the ones that look like you do.

Shirley Akelkok:

I think our member focus is unique even for a co-op. We really prioritize our members and everything that we do for them. This is reflected in how involved we are in the community, from sponsoring league baseball teams to maybe building our own generation to become independent from our sister co-op because the members wanted to do so. I think another thing that makes us unique in the utility sector, because we are so far removed from the rest of the United States, I'll say this again, but relationship building becomes at the forefront of how we conduct business.

Jason Price:

Shirley, what do you say to our listeners who are taking stock of their career and place of employment? Why should they consider Matsu Valley and a career at Matanuska Electric Association?

Shirley Akelkok:

For anyone out there that's looking for a position, whether in the engineering field, human resources, accounting, I would definitely suggest visiting our website, www.MEA.coop for a few reasons. When you come to the Matsu Valley, that's not going to be just your job that you're coming to. For many people who come to the Matsu Valley to Alaska in general, it ends up being their forever home. The quality of life here is so good. It is definitely a place where you can raise a family. You can go to the annual fair, if you want to. What a lot of people don't know about the Matsu Valley is it's very agricultural in nature. We have a lot of farms here. So I guess one of the things that I would really point out is that it is a very family-oriented community. It's a place where you definitely would set roots in.

Jason Price:

Shirley the insights you've been able to offer have been fascinating, indeed. We're thankful for the behind the scenes effort undertaken by the workforce development experts at our utilities. So thank you for giving them a voice here today.

Shirley Akelkok:

Thank you for having me and Matanuska Electric Association thanks you as well. We appreciate the time and the effort that you've put in in having us here as a guest.

Jason Price:

It's our pleasure. As Shirley as a member of the Energy Central community, you can always reach her at energycentral.com, where she welcomes your followup questions and comments. Once again, I'm your host Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. See you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

As a reminder, the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is always looking for the authors of the most insightful articles and the members with most impactful voices within the Energy Central community to invite them to discuss further so we can dive even deeper into these compelling topics. Posting twice per month (on the second and fourth Tuesdays), we'll seek to connect with professionals in the utility industry who are engaging in creative or innovative work that will be of interest to their colleagues and peers across the Energy Central community. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

Happy listening, and stay tuned for episode #19 in a few weeks! Like what you hear, have a suggestion for future episodes, or a question for our guest? Leave a note in the comments below.

All new episodes of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast will be posted to the relevant Energy Central community group, but you can also subscribe to the podcast at all the major podcast outlets, including:


Thanks once again to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

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