When Oklahoma Panhandle State University student Carlos Flores isn’t running track, presiding over the student government as vice president or juggling a full course load, he’s on the road, driving 30 miles from the Goodwell campus to the headquarters of Tri-County Electric Cooperative.

It’s a big commitment, but the busy 20-year-old sees his service as one of four collegiate delegates alongside the co-op’s nine trustees as time well spent. While the delegates are compensated for their service, “it’s much more than a stipend or scholarship,” he says.

“I’ve learned how different elements of a business come together to move the co-op forward while taking into account the different perspectives that directors bring to the table,” says Flores, a double major in business management and business finance who served as a delegate last year as well.

By giving talented students like Flores a “behind the curtain” look at how they work, co-ops are hoping to foster connections to a new generation of members.

“We know that young people don’t often get exposure to the cooperative business model, or they think about their co-op only when the lights go out,” says Holly Wetzel, who as NRECA’s senior director of marketing and member communications oversees the Young Adult Member Engagement (YAME) project. “The boards get folks engaged at a young age in what the co-op is all about and give them access to how boards and businesses work.”

Closing the gap

Youth-focused programs help co-ops gain inroads with a demographic that traditionally gives them lower marks in terms of member satisfaction. NRECA created the YAME program in 2019 to help address that trend, and while satisfaction scores are improving, evidence still shows a gap.

In a 2020 National Survey on the Cooperative Difference conducted by Touchstone Energy® Cooperative, members in the 18–24 and 35–44 age groups were the least satisfied with co-ops.

“Results indicate significant increases in satisfaction with each successive age group starting at 45–54 and ending with our eldest member group (85+),” according to the report.

In Oklahoma, results from that 2020 study motivated the Tri-County board to create the Board Advisory Collegiate Delegate Program.

“We took a different approach from other co-ops with high school programs,” says JuliAnn Graham, the co-op’s communications manager. “And because we have a relationship with OPSU, we decided to work with them.”

In Indiana, interest in Carroll White REMC’s Junior Board of Leaders program for high school juniors and seniors “exploded this year,” says Casey Crabb, communications and public relations manager. This year, 21 students participated, up from eight in 2019 when it began.

Crabb says peer recommendations are a big motivator.

“A friend told me I needed to do it and it would help me develop more leadership skills,” says Grace Ayres, 17, a high school senior and a second-year member whose other after-school activities include serving as senior class president and participating in volleyball, FFA and the National Honor Society.

Participants set their own bylaws, elect officers—Ayres is board president—hear from guest speakers and sponsor service projects. They meet once a month, and in December they participate in the co-op board meeting.

A key barrier to the success of these programs isn’t the quality of the applicants—many tend to be high achievers like Flores and Ayres. Instead, co-ops exploring youth boards often find themselves competing with the demands of overscheduled students.

In Wyoming, High West Energy’s proposed youth advocacy group has buy-in from several high school counselors but “hasn’t made a ton of progress with students and their already-busy schedules,” says Brooke Darden, communications and marketing coordinator at the co-op based in Pine Bluffs.

Distance is also a factor in the co-op’s sprawling three-state service area.

Crabb’s advice: “Don’t take it personally. That’s the nature of the beast. We want high-achieving kids, but you’re going to share them with everyone else,” including coaches, employers and teachers.

Nevertheless, both co-ops allow a small number of excused absences—two at Tri-County EC and three at Carroll White REMC.

In the short term, the outside perspective from the young delegates has helped co-ops. Several years ago at Carroll White, a high schooler helped the co-op set up an Instagram account. TCEC has implemented some of the ideas from students’ capstone presentations in April, including Spanish translation of a member newsletter.

And in the long run, these young adults could one day be future members, employees or directors.

“I feel like now I understand what the co-op is doing,” Ayres says. “I see it so much more, and I realize how much they’re trying to actually help our community.”