An unsettling trend is unfolding at electric cooperatives throughout the country.

Over a two-month period, Missouri’s Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative lost eight seasoned employees, including six journeymen linemen who left for contractor positions. At Oregon’s Central Electric Cooperative, a recent vacancy for a customer service rep attracted only four applicants, compared to some 200 applications in years past. At East Kentucky Power Cooperative, an engineer job opening in transmission line design has gone unfilled for two years.

For the first time in recent memory, co-ops are struggling to attract new talent and/or retain the talent they have. Demand for hybrid work arrangements is part of the reason, but other factors include an increasingly complex grid requiring longer searches for workers, higher cost of living in many co-op territories, a wave of retirements, labor shortages and, in an ironic twist, better rural internet.

“Co-ops were the preferred employer, and people were happy working there and stayed until retirement,” says Delaine Orendorff, NRECA’s director of human capital planning & compensation, who meets with co-ops on succession planning, compensation and workplace culture. “But they are now in a very competitive marketplace because of changes in technology and changes in systems. Competitive pay and benefits alone used to be effective, and still is to some extent, but talent is also looking at organizational culture, ability to grow and flexibility.”

At Platte-Clay EC, managers were caught off-guard when key employees were recruited away.

“The labor shortage is real,” says Platte-Clay CEO David Deihl, who describes his co-op’s post-pandemic hiring difficulties as one of the toughest challenges in his co-op career. “We’re not used to losing anybody to outside employers.”

'Times have changed'

The struggle to keep co-op teams at full strength is likely to continue.

NRECA data says that 19% of workers are retirement-eligible in the next five years, compared to 9% across the entire energy industry, according to a Center for Energy Workforce Development analysis released last year.

Turnover is also significant at co-ops, with 6,570 workers leaving in 2021 compared to 5,032 in the previous year, according to NRECA data. And among all utilities, the “non-retirement attrition rate” is highest among the 23-37 age group, according to the CEWD report.

And as broadband connectivity improves in rural communities, “it’s almost like we’re competing against ourselves, because anyone can work from anywhere now,” says Peter Muhoro, the chief strategy, technology and innovation officer at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where employees now have hybrid work options, with some fully remote.

“Co-ops are doing a fantastic job helping facilitate and enable broadband in rural communities,” he says. “But the question is, how can you still remain that preferred employer but still be able to compete with that big company in San Francisco?”

Kearney-based Platte-Clay EC filled most of its line crew positions with apprentices, and after a six-month search, they hired an engineer from a Texas co-op whose spouse wanted to relocate to the area to be closer to family.

Deihl says, “We offered the position to three different people, and I tell you, times have changed so much that the first word out of their mouth was if they could work at home—not salary or benefits.”

Over the past year, the co-op has reexamined benefits packages to appeal to younger workers, rebooted its employee engagement team and taken steps to improve technology enabling remote work.

Recently, he says, the co-op made an offer on an engineering position, but due to the high cost of housing in the region, the candidate declined and the position remains unfilled. The co-op has relied on contractors to fill the engineering and line crew gaps.

“The average home price in Bend is $775,000, so if you could afford to put 20% down, that’s going to come out to more than $5,000 a month when property taxes are included,” Markham says. “Getting people to move in from out of the area is virtually impossible even at the executive level because of the expense of housing. And then when you add other inflationary factors … the cost of living was already high in Central Oregon.”

Even larger co-ops and G&Ts are feeling the pressure. Power suppliers, including East Kentucky Power Cooperative, are looking nationally for hard-to-fill technical positions “and for pretty much every position that’s open now,” says Teri Lacy, human resources manager at the Winchester-based G&T.

“But some of our positions—substation design, system protection and even some of our construction projects—are so nuanced that not a ton of people have that experience,” Lacy says.

The G&T, she says, is raising its profile through a brand ambassador program and doing more outreach to local schools and colleges, especially for technical jobs.

“We recruit nationally, and we’ve even had as many as 13 headhunters looking simultaneously for one position. And these are well-paid jobs.”

Get creative

So how can co-ops keep up with these seismic shifts among workers and remain competitive?

In her visits to co-ops—which went up by about 50% last year—NRECA’s Orendorff says many are reassessing workplace culture and policies and practices, with some further along than others.

“They’re looking at how they can improve their culture and increase leadership skills, collaboration and transparency. They’re looking at how they can develop employees and grow their own talent. They’re looking at policies to see if they can be more flexible on schedules—ideas such as four 10-hour days, hybrid working and flexible time off so employees can take an hour off without having to use up an eight-hour day of vacation, sick or PTO,” she says.

Sometimes tweaking a job description can do the trick. At the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives, based in Baton Rouge, a fruitless, yearlong search for a communicator ended when CEO Addie Armato advertised the opening as a project manager.

“I thought, maybe we just need someone who can manage these projects, is resourceful enough to find outside help and can bring everybody together,” says Armato, who admitted being “taken aback” when the search dragged on for months.

Now is also a good time for co-ops to lean into their “sterling reputation” as great places to work, as one expert put it. Co-ops have been doing this by simply raising awareness within their communities and focusing on in-house improvements.

Within the past year, Central EC has promoted about 10% of its workforce, and its board authorized increases in salary ranges.

“You need to give workers opportunities to advance and let them excel,” Markham says. “There are ways to work around these challenges. We just have to be creative.”