The Growing Need for Power Utility Workers | DCR Workforce Blog

The Growing Need for Power Utility Workers

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, analysts and representatives of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries contended that the temporary work visa programs offered to educated foreign nationals crowd out Americans who already work in those fields. H-1B and L1 visas are intended to allow companies in the U.S. to bring foreign nationals to their offices in America to fill openings for which there are no qualified American candidates. Instead, some contend that the program is apparently being used to save costs and hire cheaper workers to do the work when companies cannot outsource it to a low-cost foreign location.

A 10000-strong Union of Electrical Workers has complained that the H-1B program helped their employer, Southern California Edison, to lay off 800 highly skilled American IT workers and replaced them with people brought in on H-1B visas, to work for limited periods for almost half the pay commanded by the local workers.

According to Hal Salzman, professor at the J.J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, the U.S. supply of graduates in most energy fields is far greater than the industries’ hiring needs to begin with. The professor also said that the guest worker visas only facilitate the offshoring of IT work to other locations.

Arguments for H-1B visas to fill the talent shortages in the energy sector point to the following:

  • The existing cap on visas under the program was originally set in 1990. The numbers have failed to keep up with the requirements of the industry and have seriously hindered the plans companies in America to expand their operations, forcing them to relocate their operations to locations which offer qualified workers.
  • It is estimated that 400,000 energy workers will retire over the next ten years, and number of students opting for energy-related STEM degrees is insufficient to fill the void. To complicate matters further, many energy companies continue to rely on old technologies. As older workers retire, companies are challenged to support and maintain those systems with new workers. Shortages are occurring not just in highly educated professions but also for field workers and skilled operators like linemen. Younger workers are reluctant to take positions involving exposure to all kinds of weather and the hazards of high voltage power.

Utilities like power and water are taken for granted, but impossible to live without. Not having enough workers could impact the provision of new connections, power restorations in case of breakdowns, and the ongoing proactive maintenance needed to ensure continuity of service. Labor shortages have resulted in excessive overtime hours, creating a very negative image for the job and make it even harder to find people willing to join it.

So who is right in their assessment of the need for energy-related workers? As often happens, both sides are right and wrong. Future recruitment plans must be built by the sector and job description, identifying the types and volumes of resources that will be needed to achieve the transformation that is underway in the creation and delivery of energy while also supporting the existing infrastructure. At the same time, creative programs are needed to ensure knowledge transfer from those reaching retirement age, and incentives may be needed to extend the tenure of retiring workers. The use of foreign nationals working under an H-1B or L1 visa can then been strategically applied.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.