Op-Ed: Fostering NJ’s next-generation utility workers

Tom Churchelow

Events of the past year and a half — from the pandemic to the devastating impact of Hurricane Ida — have shown the continued importance of utility workers. Their dedication and commitment during these times are shining examples of what New Jersey is all about. That is why, as we celebrate New Jersey Careers in Utilities Week this third week of October, we as a state must do all we can to encourage the next generation of utility workers.

New Jersey Careers in Utilities Week, which coincides with the Center for Energy Workforce Development’s Careers in Energy Week, was born out of bipartisan legislation signed into law in 2016. The intent is to “annually recognize the state’s investor-owned public utility workforce and various employment opportunities in public utilities.”

The need to recognize employment opportunities is more than just lip service. As two of the sponsors noted when the bill was signed, the Center for Energy and Workforce Development has found that nearly 55% of the electric and natural-gas public utility workforce across the country might retire within the next decade. In New Jersey, residents and businesses depend on utilities and their employees to provide essential natural gas, electric, water, wastewater and telecommunications service around the clock. Given that 38,000 men and women work in this industry in our state, this leaves the potential for a significant workforce gap that will need to be filled and filled quickly.

Addressing this need is even more critical when we consider the Murphy administration’s clean-energy goals and vision laid out in the Energy Master Plan. Achieving these goals means building and training a whole new workforce.

That then begs the question: How do we encourage the next generation of utility workers? At the New Jersey Utilities Association, we have been working in collaboration with the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the Board of Public Utilities and the New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development on programs that offer certified apprenticeships and training. Further, we have been working through our participation with the governor’s New Jersey Council on the Green Economy to bring awareness about opportunities in the utilities industry to state policy leaders who are members of the council.

Our member organizations are doing their part as well. New Jersey American Water has created the START (Solutions Today and Reinvesting Tomorrow) program in coordination with the state Department of Labor and New Jersey Council of Vocational-Technical Schools to create an apprenticeship program, providing a pipeline to a water-utility career. Atlantic City Electric partners with three South Jersey vocational schools and four local workforce development boards to institute similar programs.

Engaging young students

More, however, needs to be done. It should not just be about finding people already in search of a career. Policymakers, utilities, and educational institutions need to coordinate and find innovative ways to engage students at early educational stages to view utilities as an optimal career choice. Parents and guidance counselors can encourage pursuit of utility careers as well. After all, we know that such a path can lead to success and security.

The jobs we are seeking to fill are not just important to utility customers and service areas; they also represent good, well-paying jobs that can support working families in our state. The Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimates that the average salary in the utility industry is over $120,000 a year and that entry-level salaries start around $53,000 a year. These jobs represent a great opportunity for those looking to start and build a career in New Jersey.

Utility workers have and continue to be on the front lines during New Jersey’s most trying times. They represent the best of what our state has to offer. That’s why it is so important that we do all we can to encourage the next generation of utility workers to start their career paths today. That means continuing the programs we and our members are already doing. But it also means finding ways to engage students at earlier stages of their career development — with the help of policymakers, utilities, and educational institutions, as well as encouragement from parents and guidance counselors.

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