(As seen on WZZM TV 13) DTE Energy is making an appeal to high school and college students to come work for the utility after completing their education.
The company, along with Consumers Energy, faces a workforce shortage in the coming decade.
“It’s a well-known fact that our workforce is aging, especially in our industry,” DTE President and COO Jerry Norcia said. “I think the average age is mid-to-late 40s.”
He said that means 50 percent of DTE’s workforce likely will retire over the next 10 years.
“That is all sectors, office roles, like engineers, accountants, analysts, lawyers and IT professionals, and in the field, pipe fitters, welders and linemen,” Norcia said.
Today, Michigan boasts nearly 97,000 energy jobs, and the Michigan Workforce Development Agency estimates the energy cluster to grow by 9.4 percent through 2024.
Approximately 1,800 utility jobs open every year in the state.
DTE employs 10,000 workers, 4,000 in office roles and 6,000 workers in the field, as well as several hundred linemen who work as contractors and 700 tree trimmers.
Norcia said the company is looking to create a pipeline of talent in all of these areas.
“We will be looking for professionals and skilled trades,” he said.
To fill these future jobs, DTE has partnered with Consumers Energy, as well as with many colleges and universities in Michigan, to ensure students know about careers in energy and graduate with the skills they need to enter those jobs.
Collectively, DTE and Consumers provide more than 600 internship and co-op jobs for high school and college students.
Norcia said the company already has partnerships with Grand Valley State University, Oakland University, Wayne State University and Henry Ford Community College, among others.
He said DTE likely will enhance those partnerships by working with those colleges and universities to create curriculums specific to the energy industry.
“We’ve got an extensive training system at DTE once you’re an employee, and what we are trying to do is move that training up stream to community colleges and unions,” he said.
“We are going into the high schools and directing students to community colleges that offer training programs, say for a pipe fitter or lineman, so they get the specialized training,” he said. “The colleges are very receptive to offering those programs, and then they can enter our four-year apprenticeship program.”
Norcia said many of DTE’s office workers also come to the utility through recruiting efforts with Michigan’s higher education institutions.
While technology will change some of the work being done by DTE, Norcia said students can count on long-lasting careers with the company.
“I don’t think technology is going to shrink our workforce,” he said. “I think it will change the nature of it. The workforce will have to change to accommodate new technology.”
As an example, he said an area of rapid advancement in the industry is automation of the grid.
“That means I can sit in the control center and turn circuits on and off to accommodate a tree falling on a wire. I can isolate that outage between poles and turn on another circuit to feed that circuit, so the customer sees a very short interruption period, seconds instead of hours.”
He said what that means in terms of the workforce is the company will need fewer workers for emergency repair, but he said it will allow DTE to focus its hiring in the areas of rebuilding.
He said DTE will be spending approximately $8 billion in the future to rebuild its generation fleet, up to $12 billion to rebuild its distribution infrastructure and up to $24 billion to rebuild its gas infrastructure, which he called “very old.”
“So, very large capital intensive programs that will require a lot of workers,” he said. “If I could redirect my workforce to proactive rebuilding versus reactive trouble on our system, that would be a great outcome.”
Employees in the area of cyber security will be another area of growth for DTE.
“Cyber security is very important to us,” he said. “We provide an essential service, so we have a whole department with a director that is focused on that.”
He said that department already has seen substantial growth, and he expects additional growth of 20 to 30 percent over the next few years.
Norcia said the biggest challenge to attracting the employees DTE needs is getting students to see energy as an exciting career field, because he admits it’s not seen as a “sexy industry.”
“But there is a tremendous amount of innovation happening in our industry,” he said.
For instance, he said DTE Insight partnered with a Detroit software firm to develop an app that connects residents to their meters.
“It allows you to see the use on your meter on a real-time basis,” he said. “You can go around your house and turn lights on and off and you can see the power go up and down.
“This app also allows you to create a budget for your energy use, and it will send you alerts if you are over your budgeted amounts, and it will give you tips on how to save energy. It also gives you access to your energy bill.”
He said the next evolution of the app is to connect it to the thermostat, so people can start controlling their appliances.
“It can tell you what appliances are not working in your house, so you can send for someone to repair them. Those are ideas we are working on, and they are in full-scale development.”
He said these are the types of things students aren’t likely to think about when they think about careers in energy.
“I’ve worked in the utility industry for 30 years and have had a fantastic career,” he said.