Shortage of skilled workers worries energy industry

KENNEWICK -- Energy producers and suppliers are optimistic about their long-term future in Washington, but are concerned about shortages of skilled workers and developing adequate training programs for them, according to a survey of energy employers.

Growth in the clean energy industry depends on the state's ability to train workers who need to be a "jack of all trades" to build, operate and maintain plants and equipment, said Alan Hardcastle.

He's senior research associate with Washington State University's Extension Energy Program and author of a 2009 report on renewable energy and work force development in the state.

Hardcastle moderated a panel Tuesday on renewable energy jobs during the 10th Harvesting Clean Energy Conference, which wound up three days of meetings at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick.

Young people are interested in careers in the renewable energy industry, he said, and are excited about the technology and the chance to have a so-called "green" job.

Energy industry careers include mechanics, millwrights, linemen, power plant control operators, electricians, technicians and engineers.

But employers who were surveyed said they felt core skills of prospective workers are often lacking, including academic, problem-solving and critical thinking.

Don Guillot, business manager for IBEW Local 77 and a panelist, said the study was "a wakeup call. We are really late getting started."

Teaching someone to become a skilled worker, such as an electrician, takes time, he said.

"You can't make a journeyman in two weeks," Guillot said. "It takes in our industry three years to be a safe, competent worker."

Jack Baker, vice president of business services for Energy Northwest, said the energy industry needs to know the kinds of workers it will need in the long term. That's why the nation "needs a clear energy policy," he said.

A 2009 National Commission on Energy Policy report, "Taskforce on America's Future Energy Jobs," highlighted the need to develop and train younger workers to replace skilled retiring employees.

Of the between 120,000 to 160,000 electric power workers who will be eligible for retirement by 2013, about 58,200 will be skilled crafts workers and another 11,000 are engineers, the report said.

Washington community and technical colleges are offering degree programs to train skilled workers, with each institution focusing on a specialty to avoid duplication.

Columbia Basin College in Pasco, for instance, offers a nuclear technology degree, while Walla Walla Community College focuses on wind power.

About 16 students currently are enrolled in Walla Walla's wind technology program, said Mindy Stevens, the college's vice president of instruction, workforce education.

-- Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535;