It’s 1,300 miles and two plane changes to get from Harlingen, Texas, to Madison, Wis., home of NRECA’s adult education campus. But for Magic Valley Electric Cooperative’s Vince Macias, the payoff was worth all the hardships.

“The logistics were a nightmare,” says Macias, manager of loss control at the Mercedes, Texas, co-op. “I would start at 4 a.m. Storms made my travel difficult. And when I got there, it was sometimes 15 degrees there and tropical here” in south Texas.

But Macias isn’t complaining. Far from it. The four one-week seminars he attended at the University of Wisconsin to earn his Certified Loss Control Professional designation were nothing short of transformative for him.

“It gave me a whole new level of confidence,” says Macias, who’s in his mid-50s and joined Magic Valley Electric 20 years ago as a substation technician. “My meetings are more structured and organized and more valuable to my staff. And not to brag, but an administrative assistant complimented me on my public speaking skills. It was the best training experience of my life.”

Co-op management also noticed a change. “You could tell the difference in his ability to talk to employees about safety and in his ability to talk to others in the field,” says John Herrera, Magic Valley Electric’s general manager.

Herrera adds that Macias’s improved management skills have impacted the co-op’s culture of safety. “You’re out there day in and day out, keeping employees trained, keeping them updated on technical aspects of their jobs,” Herrera says. “He needs to be able to confidently get in front of 40 to 50 people and talk about what makes a safe work area and environment. It’s easy to sit back and stay inside your comfort zone and not look to improve.”

Continuing education can help ease co-op employees out of those comfort zones—and weather industry changes—by introducing them to new technologies, skill sets, and perspectives, according to professional development experts.

“It’s been said that the purpose of education is to produce change,” says Gary Pfann, NRECA’s director of executive and staff education. “If that’s true, then we as leaders need to ensure education becomes a natural part of our business so we can thrive in a dynamic industry environment. If co-ops and, by extension, their employees stay in their comfort zones, the changes our industry is facing might feel like a bulldozer."

The Bottom Line

Continuing safety education has obvious rewards: Fewer accidents mean employees stay safe, and fewer claims mean lower insurance premiums and steady costs for members. But ongoing training for managers, accountants, and others can have a big impact too.

“I think when you talk about the bottom line and how training impacts it, there are three things: How much safer we are because of training, how much more efficient we are, and how much more satisfied our members are,” says Karen Moore, CEO of Baldwin EMC in Summerdale, Ala. Through the Balanced Scorecard Strategy Execution System (SES) developed by Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives in partnership with the Palladium Group, co-op managers learn that to meet members’ changing needs in a new environment, they also need to learn and grow.

“Continuing education is incredibly important to implementing a Strategy Execution System,” says Don Ryder, senior managing director at the Palladium Group and an SES Master Class instructor. He advises employers that training should fit into an overall business plan. “You will see a higher return on investment if training is directly linked to a strategy.”

Steve King, who is executive director of the Center for Professional and Executive Development at the University of Wisconsin, where many of NRECA’s executive and staff education programs are housed, says learning also affects productivity. “It really gets at the heart of the equation of what makes a good performer and a good team. If you ignore it, you do so at your own peril. If you pay attention to it, you can improve an individual’s key performance, and that improves team productivity.”

King says the “greatest moments for learning” come when someone is moving to a supervisory position. “What’s different now from 20 years ago is that people needed training to fix a problem. Today, they are probably pretty successful already at what they are doing, and they need to get to the next level of success or transition.”

New Levels of Success

Rachel Johnson left academia in 2012 when she took a position at Cherryland Electric Cooperative, and she hasn’t looked back. She began work at the Grawn, Mich., co-op as a grassroots advocate and has since been promoted to member relations manager.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Johnson, a former adjunct lecturer at Northwestern Michigan College.

Johnson, who’s in her mid-30s, says after the slow-paced university life, she appreciates the rapid-fire changes in the electric co-op industry and the connection co-ops build with their members. “There’s something appealing about the notion that a community can come together and create something to meet their needs. And I love the difference that co-ops make in their communities.”

Johnson still does her old job of educating, but now it’s educating members about policy and regulatory issues and interacting with legislators and community leaders. She manages a staff of 10 across several departments, including energy use services, the call center, and key accounts.

To help with the transition to the co-op world, Cherryland leadership sent Johnson to Madison, Wis., to take the six-week Management Internship Program led by Pfann. She also attended Next Generation Leaders, a program started this year that brings promising employees to the NRECA Annual Meeting and offers tailor-made sessions for rising co-op stars.

A self-professed “co-op junkie,” Johnson credits Cherryland’s investment in her career for pushing her to new heights on the job, which, in turn, motivates her to work harder on behalf of members. “I’m getting better, so the co-op is getting better. It inspires me and has made me loyal to this place,” she says.

Ric Boutin, a 19-year veteran at Baldwin EMC, says “new perspectives” he picked up at leadership classes sponsored by the co-op and the Alabama Rural Electric Association (statewide) have helped him build strong relationships among his 18-man crew.

When Boutin, 48, became right-of-way crew chief three years ago, he found himself managing people for the first time. Formerly a cable TV technician, he’s taken in-depth classes on managing a multigenerational workforce and fostering an innovative and creative work atmosphere. He’s also gone to a “train the trainer” class and several computer-skills workshops.

Without any preparation, Boutin says, he would have faced a “tough” transition. “It’s helped me work with all the different personalities. I guess I would have tried to wing it, but the training has made me a better supervisor. I’ve had bosses who are good people, but they would have been more effective with training.”

Baldwin EMC’s Moore says Boutin has thrived since the promotion. “He has now completed development plans for all of his employees and is really becoming a strong coach and mentor to them.”

Like Cherryland’s Johnson, Boutin says he feels a sense of duty toward the co-op. “If they’re investing in you by sending you to training, then I need to be the best I can be for the guys I supervise,” he says.

Loyalty and Retention

Statistics show that trained employees have increased feelings of loyalty toward their workplace. For example, a recent Gallup poll found that employees who have the opportunity to continually develop their skills are twice as likely to say they will spend their career with that company.

Alternately, a study by EdAssist, an educational management company, found that when asked to choose between two similar jobs, 60 percent of Millennials—those born after 1980—would pick the job with strong potential for professional development over one with regular pay raises.

“Like the rest of the energy industry, we will be challenged to find skilled workers when we need them to fill key roles—about 14,000 job openings nationwide in the next five years,” says Tracey Steiner, NRECA senior vice president for education and training. “Living the fifth cooperative principle of ‘Education, Training, and Information’ communicates to future workers that learning and growth are valued and encouraged.”

Carroll White REMC in Monticello, Ind., budgets about $300,000 each year for professional development, CEO Randy Price says. And about one-third of the co-op’s 49 employees are engaged in some type of training at any given time. Training is also offered for the board of directors who want to get their BLC and CCD certificates.

“The sweetest thing about continuing education is that employees become more diverse and well-rounded,” he says. “When people get bored or feel like they’re getting stagnant in the position they’re in, we don’t hesitate to retrain them or stimulate passion for their work again.”

Price speaks from experience. He began his co-op career in 1988 as an apprentice lineman and was promoted to engineering assistant and tech services manager. Price served as the joint CEO of White County REMC and Carroll County REMC before they consolidated in 2012.

He says training played a big part in his success, noting that the more courses and programs he took, including several NRECA seminars, the more he wanted to learn. “It was the co-ops’ investment in me that got me to where I’m at. Honestly, I’ve worked hard, but the training I got as an apprentice lineman fed my hunger to learn more.”

‘Able to innovate’

Launched in September 2015, NRECA’s Value of Learning Initiative promotes the importance of continued investments in the co-op workforce.

“Learning impacts individual and personal growth as well as the co-op’s future because changes in our industry, in technology, and in our members’ expectations require that we be able to innovate,” says Val Parks, director of learning strategies in NRECA’s education and training department.

One of the initiative’s early goals, Parks says, was to help co-ops navigate the array of NRECA programs and opportunities. The association has simplified the Education and Training section of to help co-ops analyze which of its 300-plus in-person and online programs are best-fits for directors, managers, and employees.

“The initiative also has incorporated tactics to help learners recall and apply what they learned when they get back to their co-op,” Steiner says.

Baldwin EMC’s Moore used her management class time well. As part of an assignment, she created her co-op’s successful Powering Employees to Achieve Knowledge (PEAK) program.

“Instead of going away for six weeks to learn about the co-op business model, employees spend one week each quarter with every area in the co-op,” Moore says. “It’s done exactly what I had hoped it would do. Not only are our employees gaining knowledge and bringing a fresh set of eyes to different departments, but they have a whole new respect for their fellow employees and how each department affects the next.”

PEAK participants wrap up their program with a formal presentation before co-op management, describing what they’ve learned and suggesting operational improvements.

When Baldwin EMC’s board asked the co-op to be “more member-focused,” which included eliminating the word “customer,” employees underwent training first, Moore says. The number who now identify themselves as members, not customers, has soared from 48 percent to 65 percent in one year.

“I believe as the expectations of our members increase, it’s this training that we can look to and credit with us maintaining high satisfaction scores that range from 95 to 98 percent year after year,” she says.

The Power of Human Investments

Casey Crabb knows another way that training helps co-ops fulfill their mission. As head of Carroll White REMC’s marketing and public relations departments, he’s gotten the chance to take several NRECA trainings, including the Management Internship Program.

Beyond the advantages that training gives him as a co-op manager, he said it’s also given him a leg up in one of his other passions: serving his community as a member of the White County Council.

Crabb, 51, says his skills in everything from running meetings to managing money are highly applicable to his work as an elected official. “I can use my skills to the betterment of the co-op and the community I serve.”

Tamara Hawkins started as a billing clerk and customer service assistant manager at East Central Oklahoma Electric Co-op. She credits ample training opportunities for helping her become the Okmulgee co-op’s first female manager in 2012.

Now 45, she says she looks ahead and sees an “awesome, rewarding career.”

“They’ve had confidence in me and helped me develop as a leader,” Hawkins says. “I’ve been able to stay in small-town Oklahoma to raise my family, much like I was raised. I feel like I hit the jackpot.”