Umatilla Electric Cooperative, like many co-ops, is facing a wave of employee retirements. But instead of a nationwide search for job candidates, the co-op’s leaders are focusing on ways to attract young people who already live in and love the rugged beauty of their eastern Oregon service territory.
About 16% of UEC’s 100 full-time employees will be eligible to retire in five years and 25% within 10 years, says Weston Putman, the co-op’s manager of public relations.
At the same time, there is more competition than ever to recruit talented employees from the area, says Robert Echenrode, the co-op’s general manager and CEO.
“We now have competition from companies with remote workforces in different areas,” he says. “People with customer-service skills or accounting skills can work from anywhere.”
In some cases, experienced workers can be convinced to stay on for a few more years, but the 10,500-member co-op also recognizes the need to recruit younger workers who can move up the ranks over time, Echenrode says.
To do that, UEC is partnering with local school districts to get students interested in co-op jobs while they are still teenagers. UEC employees attend high school job fairs, speak to students in their classrooms and invite teachers and counselors to visit the co-op and let their students know about opportunities there.
“People immediately think about lineworker jobs when they think about an electric utility, but we explain that we also hire accountants, graphic artists, engineers, project managers, customer-service people and more,” Echenrode says.
Instead of asking interested students to apply for internships, the co-op first offers them a chance to shadow an employee at work for a day or more. If students enjoy the experience, they can apply for a formal internship, which has the potential to lead to a full-time job.
Two engineers have been hired by the co-op in the past two years after participating in job-shadowing and internships. UEC currently has two interns from local high schools. One is working in the IT department and the other in operations.
Kai Arbogast, a 25-year-old electrical engineer who has worked at UEC for almost two years, says he “fell in love” with the job when he shadowed co-op engineers in 2018 while on a break from his studies at Calvin University in Michigan. The engineers took him out into the field, visiting some of the co-op’s 40-plus substations and explaining how the electric grid works.
“I became super passionate about the mission of the co-op to serve members rather than just make money,” he says. “After that, I asked for an internship.”
Arbogast ended up with two consecutive internships and says he was thrilled by how much hands-on experience he was given. One of his assignments was to create digital forms so employees could make automated inspection reports about substation equipment. Before that, the co-op was using paper forms.
After graduating from college with his electrical engineering degree, Arbogast was hired full-time and says he’s still getting challenging assignments that make it fun to come to work. He is leading UEC’s efforts to replace its first-generation automated meters with more advanced models that will immediately notify the co-op of outages. The co-op serves more than 15,000 meters.
“I like the responsibility,” he says. “I don’t like places where I’m being overmanaged or not given an opportunity to excel. If I’ve asked to take on a project, they’ve pretty much let me do it.”
Echenrode says it’s important for co-ops to offer interns a strong hands-on experience and not just tell them to watch employees’ work. “You can damage the program with the wrong interaction,” he says. “I want to make sure they’re all engaged.”
Successful recruitment is crucial at UEC, which serves the fastest-growing city in eastern Oregon—Hermiston—and expects to double its workforce to 200 employees by 2030, Echenrode says.
“It’s not going to be easy, but we have to find them, and they have to fit our organization,” he says. “The internships and the job shadowing help us align ourselves with good candidates much earlier in the process.”
Arbogast says he’s happy he was able to find a good job in the place where he grew up.
“I liked being away from home in Michigan for college, but I did really want to come back and be around my friends and family,” he says. “And UEC gave me the chance to do that.”