Utility tries to head off 'Silver Tsunami'

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) instructor Ray Atkinson helps a student navigate a utility pole during the PG&E's PowerPathway Pole Climbing Capstone course at the PG&E pole climbing training facility in Oakland, Calif. 

Students stretch before climbing utility poles, at PG&E’s training yard in Oakland, Calif.

Student Olatungi Lawrence -- geared up and waiting to climb an electrical pole for the first time.

Student Olatungi Lawrence, foreground, with fellow classmates learning to climb utility poles for the first time.

Ahead of retirements, PG&E’s Jeff Wilding says company has to prepare the next generation of utility workers.

Kai Ryssdal: Item one as we set up this next story: The cost of college is going up, as we have heard. Item two: The unemployment rate for young people in this country -- 16- to 19-year-olds -- is almost triple the national rate.

So it's not all that surprising that some of those young people are passing up college, and the debt that comes with it, and instead of trying to find new ways into the workforce. Some companies are welcoming them with open arms, the northern California utility Pacific Gas & Electric among them. In part because half its workforce could retire in the next five years -- an exodus that's being called the "Silver Tsunami."

As part of our series, Clocked In -- about young workers finding jobs -- Youth Radio's Jaylyn Burns reports.


Jaylyn Burns: Ray Atkinson is about what you'd expect from an electrical line worker. He has a mustache, hard hat, and deep voice. He's your typical Bob The Builder.

Ray Atkinson: I've worked for PG&E for about 35 years. So I've been climbing poles since 1980.

And there's one other thing that makes him like a lot of utility workers.

Atkinson: Technically, I could retire anytime after January 1st.

PG&E says nearly half the people who work there could retire in the next five years. They call those grey-haired retirees the "Silver Tsunami." And since cutting off the power isn't an option, PG&E is trying to get ahead of the tidal wave with a training program called the PowerPathway.

Atkinson: Straighten your leg, drop into it, put your foot right down there by that stripe. Concentrate on that technique.

That's Atkinson, playing the role of grizzled professor at a pole climbing yard in Oakland, Calif. His student, Olatungi Lawrence, is inching up an electrical pole for the first time. He's just six feet off the ground and struggling to jab steel spikes attached to his boots into the wooden pole.

Atkinson: Right there I want you to drop straight into that pole. There you go! That's what we're looking for. Now you can lean over this side. There you go. 

Lawrence is super skinny, super enthusiastic, and super tall -- like 6'3." And at 19 years old, he's the youngest of 30 participants in a three-week clinic designed to teach prospective employees how to climb utility poles.

Olatungi Lawrence: It's cool. They prepare you really well for it. You're never going up blind. 

Lawrence graduated high school last year. He says most of his friends went on to four-year colleges like the U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Santa Barbara. He thought about applying to college himself and says he was a good student. But instead, he chose to focus on job training because he says he knows people with master's degrees who still can't find work.

Lawrence: If I can get a job now and work towards that education, that's a great position to be in, instead of having to go through four years of college and owe a whole bunch of money and have no way to pay for it.

Lawrence will be at the front of the line for a job at PG&E -- if he's able to successfully complete the pole climbing class. He's already finished 240 hours of basic training, where he and classmates were exposed to a whole bunch of careers.

Jeff Wilding: They learn about substation jobs, they learn about gas department jobs, they learn about the electric department jobs.

Jeff Wilding is a Director of Electric Operations Training for PG&E. He says trainees like Lawrence are a lot like minor league baseball players.

Wilding: The analogy is really that if you go recruit someone out of high school or college on a baseball team, they have to go through that whole farm system before they can get to the major leagues. Linemen in this case being the major league. Those are our pros.

For Lawrence to reach the pros, he'll have to land a pre-apprenticeship, which pays about $47,000 a year. If all goes well, he could be earning $100,000 by the time he's 25. But he'll have to prove that he has the skills -- and that he can do the job safely.

Wilding: If they can't do it safely, we really can't afford to have them with us.

Wilding calls the PowerPathway a win-win. It benefits PG&E because the company can test out job seekers before they apply. And for job seekers, the trainings are free, fast, and come with the potential of a lucrative career. So what's the catch?

Wilding:  We get lots and lots of applications.

A recent job posting for pre-apprentice lineman positions was only open for five days.

Wilding: Thirteen-thousand people applied, and we have 60 jobs this year.

Which makes PG&E about 40 times more selective than U.C. Berkeley -- at least until the Silver Tsunami takes its course.

In Oakland, I'm Jaylyn Burns for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: Jaylyn's piece is part of our series, Clocked In, from Youth Radio's New Options Desk -- stories of how young adults can get work.

About the author

Jaylyn Burns is a reporter for Youth Radio.

Students stretch before climbing utility poles, at PG&E’s training yard in Oakland, Calif.

Student Olatungi Lawrence -- geared up and waiting to climb an electrical pole for the first time.

Student Olatungi Lawrence, foreground, with fellow classmates learning to climb utility poles for the first time.

Ahead of retirements, PG&E’s Jeff Wilding says company has to prepare the next generation of utility workers.

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