Lara Wheeler runs Cuivre River Electric Cooperative’s nine-person member support team, some of whom have been at the Missouri co-op for as many as 21 years and some who started last year.

So when Wheeler, always on the lookout for “opportunities to learn and grow as a supervisor,” heard about the co-op’s new CHARGE Leadership Development program, she signed up immediately.

“I’ve learned through many different trainings how important the people aspect is,” she says. “I lead a diverse group of personalities, and getting those groups to mesh and have everyone on the same page is important.”

Team-building, empathy, project development and other “soft skills” are some of the lesson plans in a growing number of in-house leadership development programs at co-ops. As they brace for waves of retirements and contend with hiring shortages, co-ops are building these initiatives to “upskill” current workers, solidify workplace culture and keep and attract talent.

“Investing in training is a way to keep employees with the right attitude and aptitude but maybe not all the skills—yet,” says Erin Pressley, NRECA senior vice president for Education, Training and Events. “It’s better to find and keep the right people and train them for what you need them to do instead of hiring outside. And it’s a great retention benefit to invest in someone’s professional development, and more companies are increasingly realizing that.”

To be sure, co-ops are still sending employees to professional development courses offered by NRECA or through their statewide associations. But by keeping some things local, they can hold down costs and shape content.

“Learning is a continuous process, so we always have to be in training mode,” says Mike Fuller, president and CEO of Berkeley Electric Cooperative, which debuted its program last year to employees in its four district offices in South Carolina. “If we really want our strategic plan and training development to be systemic across the organization, we felt it was imperative to have that person on staff. We want to be in the position where when an opening comes available, we will have several employees who meet our criteria.”

The numbers

As co-ops face high numbers of retirements and experience high turnover, the need to prioritize attracting and retaining talent is increasingly important. 

According to NRECA data, non-retirement separations at co-ops were fairly steady between 2018 and 2020. But that number swelled to 7,911 last year after hitting 6,570 in 2021 and 5,032 in 2020. The number of retirement-eligible co-op workers over the next five years sits at around 18%.

Since 2017 about 40% of FreeState Electric Cooperative’s workers have retired or moved to new positions, including its CEO. And over the next decade, another 15% will be eligible to retire from the McLouth/Topeka, Kansas-based co-op.

Its extensive leadership program, designed by Executive Support and HR Manager Desiree LaForge, is set to debut next year and aligns with a development program to help supervisors and managers deal with the upcoming leadership transitions.

“We found that a lot of times, it’s not so much the industry that people are falling behind with training, it’s the soft-skill development and the ability to manage folks entering the workforce,” LaForge says.

Research also shows that employees, particularly millennials, want to learn. And given those opportunities, trained workers will reward their employers with higher satisfaction and increased feelings of loyalty.

An April 2022 Harvard Business Review article cites a Gallup poll showing “more than 50% of employees are disengaged in their work, and investing in their professional growth is the best way to help them reactivate.”

Dairyland Power Cooperative’s Leadership Academy is “absolutely” part of recruiters’ pitches, says Elizabeth Ressie, director of safety and human resources at the generation and transmission co-op based in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

“If I were looking for an alternative place to work, I would want to know what my future organization is doing to invest in my growth and development,” Ressie says. “The Leadership Academy illustrates that’s something we value and put a lot of effort and investment in.”

'Give yourself time'

The in-house programs CREC, Berkeley, FreeState and Dairyland all started within the last year or two, offer a certificate upon completion and take about a year or more to finish. Employee sign-up is voluntary, and some, like CREC’s, are referred by managers.

Berkeley EC’s leadership certificate program offers eight core courses and at least five electives. Core courses are offered two or three times a year and electives once or twice.

“We’re actually discouraging people from trying to finish in one year, because then it gets into a check-the-box mode,” says Kristen Halverson, the co-op’s director of organizational development. “We encourage people to take a class, apply it to your life, apply it to your job and see how that plays out. Give yourself time to actually use this information.”

Program creators were hired specifically so they could expand and evolve their co-ops’ in-house training capabilities. They started the programs from scratch after months of research and discussions with senior leaders on aligning lesson plans with strategic and succession goals.

Before Berkeley EC, Halverson was a high school English teacher for 21 years who also designed school curricula. Dairyland Power recently hired a full-time employee to take over its Leadership Academy from Ressie. And before Cuivre River EC’s Brittany Drones and LaForge built their programs, their co-ops had no full-time training specialist.

At the end of the day, word of mouth is the most powerful way to attract and recruit workers. And in small towns, where co-ops are often among the most prominent businesses, employee goodwill can carry a lot of weight.

“Most of our hires are local,” Halverson says. “Our employees are our best ambassadors. We hope that the more they’re able to talk about how they feel supported and how they feel like they can grow, the more they can talk about the amazing opportunities here.”