This month’s question: What was the biggest challenge your co-op faced or overcame in 2021?

Answer: Uncertainty. Imagine being offered a trip without directions or a sense of where the journey will lead you. 2021 has been that kind of journey, more so after 2020 when we’d hoped for (expected?) normalcy. It appeared we had a roadmap, but the Delta forced us to swerve. We cooperatives are good at managing crises. We lean on each other. We figure it out. But the COVID-19 playbook never arrived in the mail. So we adapted without perfect solutions, and each cooperative built its own organic, ever-changing roadmap. At SEMO, our culture is based on engagement, training and transparency. The desire to connect with people in-person—not on Zoom—created multiple internal questions and deliberations. Why? Because we care. Because we are human. And humans will only tolerate uncertainty for so long. What I call “pandemic creep” will take over if we don’t keep battling, and we do that by being transparent. We are fortunate to have a team that is flexible, adaptable and holds each other accountable. No matter what uncertainty surrounds them, each team member’s line of sight is clearly defined and linked to SEMO’s strategy. As CEO, it’s my job to ensure we have a safe, healthy work environment. Ultimately, I’ve found the way to fight pandemic creep is to reduce the uncertainty, to communicate well and to update our roadmap as often as necessary.

Answer: Since 2017, we have owned, operated and maintained the electrical facilities on Eglin Air Force Base near Destin, Florida. The arrangement has been mutually beneficial to us and the Air Force. Even through the first year and a half of COVID-19, we performed at a high level and earned an “exceptional rating from our contracting officer. Now, with President Biden's announced vaccine mandates for federal contractors, my biggest concern of 2021 and 2022 is the huge challenge this decree could place on our ability to adequately serve our members. I'm a vaccine supporter and strongly encourage my employees to get the shot. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of employees have not, and many may quit over the federal order. If the mandate remains in place and doesn't provide a workaround (like weekly testing), our ability to serve members at the high level they expect could be jeopardized. If we were to lose just 10 or 20 employees out of a workforce of 160—many are highly skilled and very difficult to replace, like lineworkers, IT techs, engineers—we'll be in a difficult situation, with potentially longer outages, delays in new services, slower right-of-way trimming and postponed construction projects. How will our members, like the military base, respond to this diminished service? I have a good idea ...

Answer: An organization is only as good as its employees. Like others, we’ve experienced higher-than-normal turnover in the “Great Resignation” of 2021, and recruiting has been challenging. In my experience, the public power industry has been home to some of the best employees, and Flathead Electric is no exception. I like to think that’s due in large part to the culture we’ve built. Our industry is fortunate to offer competitive compensation and benefits and job stability that is second-to-none. These qualities have long shielded us from the employment challenges many companies face, but that seems to be shifting. We’ve had to get creative and flexible in our hiring, recruiting and retention practices, especially as we compete with more flexible and remote work opportunities. We’ve put more resources into our hiring processes while modifying old habits to meet the needs of a more limited applicant pool. We are having conversations with our current and potential employees about what keeps them satisfied to ensure our people are in roles that benefit them personally and professionally. We are proud to have attracted some talented new team members and kept our workforce employed through uneven times. Because it’s a moving target, we will stay diligently focused on developing our workforce to best meet their needs and the needs of our members now and into the future.

Answer: The most challenging factor we faced this year has been working to get reimbursements on $43 million in claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after two hurricanes hit Baldwin EMC territory within six weeks of each other in 2020. Almost immediately following the storms’ devastation, we enlisted attorneys and consultants to assist us with the FEMA claims process. This insight was gathered from networking with other cooperatives that had recently experienced the process. As the cooperative approached the one-year mark on the road to recovery in September, Baldwin EMC had still not received any confirmation of any obligated funds. Due to the uncertainty of our FEMA claims, we met with FEMA representatives and reached out to our congressional delegation for assistance. On Oct. 26, we were notified that $2.1 million had been obligated of our $43 million claim. Our biggest success through this challenge has been our dedicated employees who led the FEMA claims process. These employees have responded to the never-ending questions—some relevant; some ridiculous. I have learned through this experience that these are uncertain times with FEMA. I can’t help but ponder the questions: What will the FEMA claims process look like in the future? Will FEMA funding be there for future natural disasters?