Cooperative careers

There’s a place for you in the electric co-op network

The men and women who don hard hats and climb poles to work on power lines might be the most visible employees of electric utilities, but it takes a host of other professions to keep power flowing.

From accounting to communications, engineering to human resources, customer/member service to line work, the job opportunities at electric cooperatives are numerous and will become more so as Baby Boomers retire in waves.

By 2017, 55 percent of electric co-op CEOs will be eligible for retirement, and the number jumps to 75 percent in 10 years. That’s just the top job bracket – other categories of workers are on the way out, too, in the next five years:

  • Senior Managers, 37 percent
  • Supervisors, 31 percent
  • System Operations Employees, 26 percent
  • Engineers, 24 percent
  • Skilled Trades, which includes lineworkers equipment operators, 16 percent
  • Information Technology, 14 percent

This means many new positions are opening up at co-ops near you. Cooperatives are generally considered to be great places to work, no matter the type of cooperative, because people are put over profits.

Electric co-ops, specifically, are not-for-profit businesses, which means they have to generate money in order to operate and meet financial lending requirements, but any extra revenue over and above operating expenses are returned to their member-owners in the form of patronage capital credits.

Martin Lowery has worked with electric cooperatives for more than 30 years, a length of time that’s common in the industry because of its stability and generous benefits offerings. He’s Executive Vice President for Member and Association Relations at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), the trade group that provides support and services for about 900 electric cooperatives across the country.

But Lowery’s service hasn’t been limited to NRECA. In fact, he was recently inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame for his dedication to co-ops worldwide.

“Cooperative employees enjoy a benefit that many other workers do not,” Lowery said. “They have a great deal of autonomy in their jobs. We call it ‘wearing many hats.’ They have a real opportunity to build relationships within the cooperative and within the cooperative network – relationships that often last a lifetime. They have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.”

Preparing for the tide to turn

Retirements have already begun in earnest, and electric cooperatives are in the thick of planning to ensure new employees are equipped to offer top-notch service. Decades of institutional knowledge can’t be replaced, but training can provide a solid foundation.

“Electric cooperatives are member-focused,” says Mary Zitek, Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) Safety/Education Services Coordinator. “That means cooperatives won’t hire just anybody. Employees need to understand the cooperative business model and the philosophy behind it.”

To that end, training programs for linemen, sponsored by or partnered with electric co-ops, have popped up all across the country.

The AIEC, in cooperation with Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, has established an electrical distribution lineman associates degree program. Thanks to retired McDonough Power Cooperative lineman Lavern McEntire, and his wife Nola, the Lavern and Nola McEntire Lineworker’s Scholarship was endowed in 2011 to assist deserving individuals in becoming linemen.

This year’s scholarship winner was Levi Vogt. Vogt says, “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I had family encourage me to do it and my mom used to work for Menard Electric Cooperative. I was a little leery of climbing the poles but it’s fun now. The scholarship allowed me to go to the line school. It was enough to help pay for line school.”

“Programs like these are wins for the co-op, the worker and the local economy,” says Roger Larkin, Manager of Lineworker and Apprentice Development for the AIEC. “Workers are properly trained and start their new careers on the right foot. Co-ops get employees with a head start. And it’s one more venue for technical job training.” To find out more about the program email Larkin at rlarkin@aiec.coop.

Some co-ops even recruit from colleges and universities; it’s not uncommon to see new employees who spent at least one summer as an intern at their local electric cooperatives.

“We appreciate our younger employees because co-ops often see 30- or 40-year careers, and on occasion even more than that,” Zitek says. “Recent college graduates bring a fresh perspective and new ideas, and we can train them from the ground up on what it means to work at a cooperative.”

Electric co-ops by the numbers

The unique aspect about electric cooperatives in the U.S. is that each one is an independent business, but they’re all connected in a vast network that serves 42 million people across 47 states. They serve 19 million businesses, homes, schools, churches, farms and other establishments in 2,500 of America’s 3,141 counties. To accomplish that feat, about 900 electric co-ops nationwide employ nearly 70,000 workers. Much more goes on at each one of these cooperatives than keeping the system running.

Member services employees take care of phone calls, bill payments and offer programs and services, such as home energy audits, community economic development, member education programs and youth programs. Staking technicians and engineers plot where new lines will be built, while purchasing employees maintain an inventory of equipment and negotiate contracts. And IT professionals are increasingly part of the operations landscape, in addition to traditional IT work, as more and more digital technologies are integrated into the day-in and day-out of running an electric system.

“Anyone from a recent college or technical program graduate to a more seasoned professional, looking for a great career, can find a place at an electric co-op,” Zitek says.

How to find co-op jobs

Interested in joining the co-op family? National electric cooperative career opportunities are available at www.TouchstoneEnergy.jobs, the Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives’ career center, where applicants can search for openings and submit resumes.

Zitek serves on the Illinois Energy Workforce Consortium that has been working as part of the nationwide effort by the Center for Energy Workforce Development to promote energy industry careers. For more information contact Zitek at mzitek@aiec.coop or go to http://energy.illinoisstate.edu/careers/ to find out more.

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