When Josh Burnside got laid off from a sawmill job, he used retraining money to attend electrical lineworker school.
Now, the 30-year-old is a journeyman lineworker, teaching others the trade as an instructor at Avista Utilities’ Jack Stewart Training Center.
Coleen Buckham, 50, is halfway through a four-year apprenticeship at Avista’s Little Falls Dam. She was an electrician before she took a temporary job at the utility, which turned into a permanent position in the dam’s electrical shop.
The Avista employees shared their stories with local job counselors this week, with the goal of encouraging others to consider careers in the energy industry.
Utilities across the country are bracing for high rates of turnover as baby boomers leave the workplace. Avista and other local utilities are forecasting openings for engineers, computer technicians, managers, lineworkers and other skilled trades in the next five to 10 years.
At Avista, at least 25 percent of the company’s 1,600 employees will be eligible for retirement within five years. By 2024, that figure jumps to 40 percent to 50 percent. Two smaller utilities, Inland Power and Light and Kootenai Electric Cooperative, report similar employee demographics.
The aging of America’s workforce is sometimes called the “Silver Tsunami.” It’s hitting the utility industry particularly hard because most workers have long careers in highly specialized fields, said Diane Quincy, Avista’s director of leadership and organizational development.
“Throughout the industry, a lot of deeply experienced people are moving toward retirement,” she said. But that’s creating job opportunities in a field with “good wages for a long-term career,” Quincy added.
At Avista, starting wages are about $59,000 for engineers; $48,000 for information technology workers; and $45,000 for employees in skilled trades.
Local utilities have stepped up efforts to recruit new workers. Avista offers college scholarships for majors in electrical engineering and computer science. A summer job program allows engineering students to rotate through different departments at the utility and receive mentoring.
In conjunction with the Community Colleges of Spokane, the utility also operates a four-month pre-apprenticeship training program for lineworkers.
Inland Power and Light also offers college scholarships for engineering majors, and Kootenai Electric offers occasional internships.
During the panel discussion this week with career counselors, Avista employees focused on non-degree opportunities at the utility, including 10 apprenticeship programs.
Good candidates for the utility’s apprenticeships have a strong work ethic and hands-on experience at mechanical jobs, such as logging, farm labor or construction, said Jen Boettcher, a human resources recruiter for the company.
But the apprenticeships are offered to existing Avista employees. So, getting a spot generally requires taking a temporary job at Avista and proving yourself, employees told the career counselors.
Dennis Yunin, from the Washington Employment Security Department, was at the panel discussion, taking notes. He works with veterans from Fairchild Air Force Base who are leaving the military and looking for civilian employment. Some of his clients are electricians.
“A lot of them want to stay in Spokane or the Inland Northwest,” he said.
Sarah Featherly from Career Path Services, a nonprofit, was also at the panel discussion. She works with low-income clients and people who have lost their jobs and are looking for work in a new field.
“We’re looking for work opportunities that will turn into careers,” she said.