Looking back, Jared Shipp credits a certain set of skills for helping him make it as a Marine, including a stint in war-torn Iraq:
"Deductive reasoning, isolating problems and issues, and finding solutions."
The stakes are significantly lower now at
Prairie Power Inc. (PPI), a G&T based in Springfield, Illinois, but those same skills help Shipp thrive as an IT support desk analyst.
"This type of leadership training is drilled into the head of every Marine recruit," he says. "I carry it with me everywhere and in everything I do."
Veterans have generally always been a good fit for electric cooperatives. They're hardworking, resilient, and mission-focused, and they frequently come from rural areas and are willing to work and live in smaller towns.
But in an industry that has experienced unprecedented change and technological advance over the past decade, the training and values instilled by the U.S. military are a particularly valuable asset.
"Veterans bring a sense of responsibility and teamwork," says Eric Hobbie, PPI president and CEO. "Their background provides a strong foundation to face the challenges of an ever-evolving co-op environment."
Flint Energies in Reynolds, Georgia, the entire four-member telecommunications team is made up of Marine Corps and Air Force veterans.
"Two-way communications is the lifeline to our mobile workers," says Karen Garza, senior vice president of corporate services at the 87,000-meter co-op. "We've found that military members using high-tech equipment in the most challenging situations is a perfect fit for our industry."
Veterans also see their work as part of a greater cause, which is a strong match for the co-op "Concern for Community" principle.
"It's easy for them to bring that love of country down to a smaller level that is a co-op," says Marian McLemore, Flint Energies vice president of cooperative communications.
RE Magazine spoke with several veterans who landed at electric cooperatives. These are some of their stories.
Brent Barnett grew up on electric co-op lines in central Illinois, where his grandfather raised cattle and soybeans on a small farm. But it wasn't until he served in the Navy, saw some of the world, and studied IT that he began to see the co-op as a career path.
"I knew nothing about co-ops until a headhunter recruited me and I submitted my resume," Barnett says. "Then I started researching them and how they work, and I was quite impressed."
Barnett, 43, got his education in IT and cybersecurity after serving four years as a fire control technician on Navy submarines. The subs could deploy for six months at a time and remain underwater for 30-day stretches, so teamwork and versatile skill sets were vital.
"Surface ships can meet up with another surface ship," he says. "On a sub, there's no ability for aerial drops of supplies. We could be days under ice."
He now provides IT and cybersecurity services, ranging from backups to vulnerability scans, for PPI's 10 member-owner distribution co-ops, including
Shelby Electric Cooperative, which serves his hometown of Edinburg.
"For co-ops with limited head count, it's not feasible to have a dedicated IT security administrator," Barnett says. "To spread the cost of our salaries and the software and infrastructure across eight to 10 co-ops is more economical. That's how the co-op mentality is: Pool your resources and do what you need to do. [It's] similar to serving on a submarine."
While lauding electric co-ops as a good employer for anyone, he says that's especially true for veterans.
"Vets fit right in because co-ops have a goal, and it's not the stock price or anything like that. It's helping keep costs down," Barnett says. "It's all about providing power to the member."
Barnett recounts "learning how to be the go-to person" on a submarine more than 600 feet below the surface is one of the rewards of his Navy service.
"The military did teach me how to troubleshoot— how to logically work through the process of finding the solution," he says. "Everyone had a job to do to, and everyone got it done. Kind of like a co-op."
Although Mike Wallis had limited knowledge about electric co-ops, he managed to convert his skills as an avionics navigation systems specialist into just what Flint needed.
"My military experience really set me up for success. I had the leadership background, the discipline, and maturity that come with military service, plus the knowledge of electronics and ability to read and understand schematic diagrams that I learned in the military," Wallis says.
"I was able to transition to a telecommunications specialist in a civilian role with minimal on-the-job training."
Today's highly skilled veterans remain a good fit for electric co-ops, he says. Military specialties like computer and network technology, cybersecurity, and telecommunications are particularly valuable for co-ops pursuing demand-side management, smart meters, and other advanced technologies.
"It's all about telecommunications. A modern combat zone relies on telecom. Soldiers are used to using the most advanced encryption tools," Wallis says. "Cybersecurity is a growing threat. A lot of vets will already come with security clearances vetted at higher levels than standard background checks, already trained wire to wire."
Co-ops, not unlike the military, are accustomed to using technology to make a difference.
"On average, co-ops do embrace technology to solve problems and cut costs and make the grid more efficient," he says. "The military has some of the best technology out there. Veterans are trained on it, and that knowledge is transferable to things that co-ops do."
Other veterans serve on Wallis's team at Flint: Telecommunications Manager Brian Carlson, who served in the Marines for six years before joining Flint 14 years ago; Telecommunications Technician II Steve Gaw, who's been with Flint for 22 years after 23 years in the Air Force; Telecommunications Technician II Robert Kalch, who joined Flint seven years ago after 25 years in the Air Force; and Telecommunications Technician I Jerry McKinley, a three-year Flint employee with four years in the Air Force.
Wallis says that co-ops should snap up skilled veterans before corporate opportunities in urban areas lure them away.
"A lot of vets came from rural parts of the country and would be happy to go back," he says. "The challenge is vets don't know what an electric co-op is. There is an education opportunity here."
In his own words, Tyrus Parker has "been around the block."
He worked for private industry and for state government, but before all that he was a Navy aviation electronics technician.
Parker grew up in rural Illinois. His family got their power from investor-owned Ameren, which is where he first worked after leaving the service. When the company prepared to shutter the power plant where he was employed, Parker got a job with the state Environmental Protection Agency.
An opening emerged in his specialty, cellular and microwave communications, when Prairie Power Inc. took on smart meters. The co-op is not only keeping Parker near his rural roots but making the most of his skill set.
"In the middle of Illinois, there are few opportunities for that," says Parker, 38.
Since joining PPI, Parker says he has found that "electric co-ops are head and shoulders above working in private industry and state government."
"In the co-op world, it seems to be done more correctly: time to plan projects, to recommend all hardware, draft a service agreement, get it budgeted, and the project actually happens," he says. "At a co-op, you make really good long-term decisions and get equipment that you need. It's nice to get afforded an environment where we can make sound decisions. I'm really happy I landed here."
Parker served two tours aboard the USS George Washington. He learned his trade "from the ground up," working 12-hour days on the ship away from home.
"You were either training or sleeping," he says.
But the rewards were well worth it. "Where else are you going to get a chance to get a tech position somewhere without a job history?" says Parker, who was 20 when he joined the Navy. "Where I grew up, you either were a farmer or latched on to the power company and be a boilermaker like my dad."
Now at PPI, he feels more at home.
"It's been a really positive experience for me," he says. "I've tried other forms of employment. The co-op difference is definitely better in a lot of aspects."
Training tops Jared Shipp's list of rewards from his time in the Marines and, with it, discipline, confidence, and "owning up to responsibility with tact and integrity."
Shipp was deployed to Iraq to serve as a transportation mechanic when, at age 22, he was injured in a motor vehicle accident three weeks in. He was medevacked out with multiple pelvic fractures and eventually flown home to recover.
Shipp fulfilled his six-year stint with the Corps in 2012, pursued an education in IT, and joined Prairie Power, Inc. in Springfield, Illinois, in 2017.
Shipp, 33, now sees himself as the first line of defense for anyone with computer problems. He also gets thrown into software development projects and mobile device management.
He notes that the transition to the civilian workforce may not be that smooth for veterans. Their biggest challenge may be "translating the skills they learned in the military into civilian life and communicating that in the job interview process," Shipp says. "A lot of vets have a hard time trying to communicate what they actually learned."
This is can be especially true for active-duty, combat-trained troops, he adds.
"A lot of people come out of the military and they think, 'How am I going to use this?" Shipp says.
Shipp admits he knew nothing about electric co-ops before filling out the application. Now he respects the co-op business model and enjoys a familiar camaraderie.
"When we have a lot that needs to get done, no one shies away. We tackle it, go at it from a team perspective," Shipp says. "It's ingrained in you in the Marines: You got something to do; get it done."