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Reflections and Lessons Learned About Workforce Development

An Interview with CEWD’s 2020 Chairman’s Award Honoree

 

Southern Company was recently awarded CEWD’s inaugural Chairman’s Award for its work advancing workforce development priorities in the energy industry. We interviewed Joseph Lillyblad, Education and Workforce Development Manager, Georgia Power; Chair, Southern Company Workforce Development Council; and Member, CEWD Workforce Development Executive Council to learn more about Southern Company’s approach to workforce development and what he thinks of some of the challenges facing the industry today.

 

Q: Of all the workforce development strategies and initiatives Southern Company has advanced over the years, which one do you think has had the largest impact on your company and could have greater impact on the industry as a whole, if replicated?

A: Georgia Power and Southern Company were among the first of CEWD’s members to help form a state energy workforce consortium, bringing together key stakeholders in the energy industry and their partners in education and government. The Georgia Energy and Industrial Construction Consortium (GEICC) has been very successful and this type of collaborative organization has already been replicated by many others in the industry. State consortia are collectively having a major impact on the energy industry’s ability to broaden its reach to potential workers.

Being in a statewide consortium really helped galvanize how we approach our workforce development efforts at Southern Company. We were able to take the insights and knowledge and synergy that were being created through this consortium and share these with each of our operating companies. While workforce development initiatives may look different at each of Southern’s individual companies, we have core tenets regarding how we engage in our partnerships with utilities and others. The consortium helped us to focus on how we could make a broader impact, as an industry, rather than focusing solely on individualized functions for each company.

For example, through GEICC, we have been able to focus on student engagement as an industry, versus just having Georgia Power show up for a school-focused event. In areas not served by Georgia Power, we still benefit from student connections because it’s the utility industry as a whole that is being represented, not just one company. It’s about getting students to understand the types of careers available to them in our industry, whether that’s working as a lineworker, plant operator, engineer, nuclear operator or other position.

We can engage a much broader base of our population by going in as a state consortium talking about the utility sector, rather than just the jobs one utility might have. Together, we can energize the future workforce around the energy industry and this benefits us all.

Whether it’s high school students in energy pathways or veterans leaving the military and transitioning into the civilian sector, working through a consortium helps us to broaden our reach and raise awareness of the industry to a much larger population.

 

Q: What would you like to see the energy industry do more of in regard to workforce development?

A: As we continue to diversify the utility sector, we need to also diversify the ways in which we approach our future workforce. The industry is going through many innovations and our jobs have changed, our career paths have changed – we’re not the energy industry of the past that people may think they know. There’s more reliance now upon renewable energy, upon solar and wind. We’re using technology in innovative ways. The public doesn’t understand how deeply engaged we are with cyber security, or that we need people with gaming and hacking skills, not just lineworkers and plant operators. Even those jobs have changed and become more innovative. We need to do a better job of letting potential workers know who we are today and how our needs have changed as the world around us has changed.

 

Q: What has been your biggest workforce development challenge? How did you overcome it?

A: Our biggest challenge has been to shift the paradigm around what utility work looks like. There’s a multigenerational component that adds to this challenge. A student’s mother or father might think they know what a lineworker job looks like, for example. But they don’t understand the new technology or the earning potential now associated with our careers.

To address this, at Georgia Power, for example, we’ve been intentional about connecting with students earlier in their education and including parents in that conversation. When they think about high school pathways, energy is often a non-starter for them. They don’t realize that energy careers today include engineering, science, mathematics and technology, along with hands-on and construction careers. Energy encompasses all of those components. Engaging students at younger ages to get them excited about our careers and bringing their parents into that has really helped to change perceptions about the industry. Sometimes it even gets the parents interested in the jobs we have available. We’re changing that paradigm and that’s something we work on across our entire system at Southern Company.

Over the past several years, we’ve also become more intentional about getting information into communities and populations that have not historically thought of the energy sector as a career path for them. We’ve engaged with military partners to help people in the service transition to the civilian sector, for example. We’ve partnered with the Urban League and other organizations to bridge career paths for underserved populations.

We’re also using the “old school” approach of putting boots on the ground to make sure we have people in those communities have conversations face-to-face. We understand the importance of social media campaigns and advertising campaigns, but we also understand that these personal connections and conversations are important and can go a lot further than a Facebook ad. In addition, we offer externships to teachers so they can understand what it’s like to work in a power plant. When they better understand our careers, they can help students who have the aptitudes we need see that this a career path for them.

There’s no one thing that is the magic sauce for us; it’s the combination of all those things that make the magic sauce.

 

Q: What do you see as the biggest game changer related to workforce development currently facing the industry?

A: The evolution of the industry. This includes many things: the modernization of system grids, battery storage, making the connection between a Tesla and a utility company – these are things that are shifting the way the industry is perceived. Technology and innovation are changing the energy industry. This evolution creates great opportunities to really engage with students in different ways. For example, we can show students competing in First Robotics how projects like building drones can translate into the skills we need in our industry. We can take the knowledge and interests of those future workforce pipeline candidates and weave it into the modernization of the utility sector. Likewise, someone who is working in logistics in the military could easily transfer those skills for use working on logistics at a power company.

 

Q: What excites you most about CEWD’s 2021 workplan? Why?

A: I’m very excited about the focus on diversity, on reaching out to populations that have not been historically represented in the utility industry. Partnering with the Society of Women Engineers, for example. Historically, women have not been a large component of the workforce and CEWD is continuing to work on advancing that. We’re also continuing to expand our work with veterans groups and reaching out to partner with groups like the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society for Hispanic Engineers. This year’s Summit included a component on LGBTQ engagement. Whether it’s racial or gender or ethnic groups, expanding our outreach to these communities brings strength to the industry and it’s a positive direction for us to be moving in.