NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland--Electric cooperative employees must learn new skills to keep pace with rapidly changing technology and satisfy consumer-members’ ever-changing needs, NRECA President Chris Christensen told co-op leaders Thursday at the association’s first Regional Meeting of 2021.

“In the early years, our co-ops were very different places to work compared to today,” Christensen said. “Our lineworkers did their jobs much differently, using basic tools compared to today’s techniques and equipment. They didn’t have 60-foot bucket trucks or hot sticks.”

“Our members weren’t asking a lineman how they could pay their bills online,” he said. “Members weren’t calling member services to ask for an energy audit or how they could be energy efficient. And, if you can believe it, not a single member in those early years asked someone at their co-op about installing solar panels or charging their EV.”

Today, Christensen said, members have broader expectations of their co-ops.

“Our members receive our services for their basic needs, but also for internet access, to run their 3D printers, and charge their electric cars. New products and services will continue to emerge, and if we want to continue to improve the quality of life for our members and meet their expectations, we must prepare ourselves and our co-ops.”

Christensen, a cattle rancher and former agricultural education instructor, urged co-op leaders to embrace lifelong learning for themselves and their employees.

“We’re all leaders in this room—most of us directors and senior leaders at our co-op,” he said. “Are we preparing our workforce at every level for the changes that are coming? Your co-op’s ability to flourish depends on the entire organization’s knowledge base and capability to adapt.”

The most valuable employees are the ones who never stop learning, he said.

“A recent NRECA poll shows 97% of co-op employees say opportunities to participate in education and training contribute to their job satisfaction,” he said. “A commitment to ongoing employee education makes the most of the investment you are making in your staff.”

Two great examples of that come from Indiana, Christensen said.

Indiana’s statewide association offers a two-year training program for co-op professionals called the Rural Electric Leaders In Training Exchange, or RELITE. And Hoosier Energy has partnered with Indiana State University to create an online undergraduate certificate program to retrain coal plant workers for new careers in energy. The Bloomington-based co-op pays the cost of tuition, books and lab materials for employees who participate.

“When we focus on investing in ongoing learning and the preparation of our people, we accomplish three things,” Christensen said. “We identify and prepare future co-op leaders. We nurture a governing body that represents the best interests of the co-op. And we improve our co-op culture, creating a unified, knowledgeable and aligned organization that can effectively navigate the future.”