A generation ago, if a young woman expressed an interest in working in the energy industry, it’s possible her friends, family and even prospective employers would have steered her away. Keeping the lights on was traditionally seen as men’s work, aside from customer service or clerical roles, that is.

Yet today, women represent an increasing share of the electric cooperative workforce, and not just in traditional roles of the past. As you look around Illinois’ electric co-ops, you’ll find women in every imaginable role — from engineers to financial managers and in top leadership roles.

International Women’s Day is March 8. It’s a great occasion to celebrate the accomplishments of the many women who are transforming electric co-ops and how they serve their communities. It’s hard to imagine a better career field for today’s young women interested in making their communities better places to live, work and play.

“The competition for talent and skill shortages have highlighted the need to expand recruitment strategies to get a more diverse range of candidates,” explains Desiree Dunham, workforce programs manager for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). “The diverse experiences and perspectives of women contribute to more creative and effective problem-solving, which can be especially beneficial in navigating complex challenges and finding innovative solutions that cater to a broad range of consumer needs.”

NRECA reported that nearly 90 electric co-ops are headed by female CEOs, including Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative, Menard Electric Cooperative and Norris Electric Cooperative in Illinois. Strengths like teamwork, problem-solving and communication that women bring to leadership are particularly important to the industry’s future.

Co-ops across America have a variety of opportunities available to women. Beyond the highly visible roles such as linework, the diverse mix of opportunities includes positions in IT, finance and engineering, which are all vital to co-op operations.

As nearly 20% of the nation’s co-op workforce nears retirement age over the next five years, and local cooperatives compete with an ever-tighter job market, expanding the pool of potential workers is an effective solution. At the same time, there are many reasons women who are entering (or reentering) the workforce should consider finding a place in the electric co-op world.

“Cooperatives are often recognized as ‘best place to work’ employers in their communities, offering competitive benefits, caring cultures and support for families,” Dunham says. “Co-ops also have a solid commitment to strengthening inclusion and diversity, and women are often strong advocates for fostering a culture where all individuals are valued for their skills and expertise.