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Retirement readiness.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

JASPER - Brian Sharr, a line crew foreman for the Emerald People's Utility District, likes the outdoors, which is a good thing considering that's where his job requires him to be most days.

On a recent day with the sun shining and mild temperatures, it's a great gig, he said. Using a massive auger, he and his crew were setting poles for a new power line along Jasper Road.

Not all days are so benign. Linemen get called out during power failures in the bitter depths of winter. Spring can find them up to their armpits in mud repairing buried residential lines tucked away in backyards where heavy equipment can't go.

But even that down side isn't enough to wipe the smile off Sharr's face.

"It's a great job," he said.

Better still, the pay is good, averaging $35 an hour, according to Northwest utility industry reports.

Sharr has 20 years on the job. At 40, he's not looking to retire, but a lot of his colleagues are.

National surveys estimate that fully half the utility work force will be eligible to retire in the next five to 10 years.

And that poses a problem because the jobs require education, training and apprenticeships that range from one to four years, according to EPUD spokeswoman Hillary McBride.

It's one of the reasons EPUD is offering five $1,250 scholarships to any of its customers interested in training programs for utility work.

McBride hastens to add that EPUD isn't looking to hire people right now. The utility just wants people who are interested to get the training they'll need to be eligible for work as the jobs become available.

The utility, which serves residential customers in the small communities that surround Eugene and Springfield, anticipates that about 25 percent of its work force will retire in the next five years.

They aren't the only local utility with concerns about the future.

Three years ago, Lane Electric Cooperative added a $3,600 scholarship for a 10-week lineman training program to the four $1,200 general scholarships it already offers.

The lineman scholarship attracts five to seven students each year, and the utility began offering it as they recognized how their work force was aging, spokesman David D'Avanzo said.

The Eugene Water & Electric Board isn't offering scholarships, but does organize high school job fairs to let students know about the kind of work available at the utility. Last year's job fair attracted 90 students, spokesman Lance Robertson said.

EWEB also has developed a strategic plan to attract young workers and retain them, Robertson said.

The utility could lose 27 percent of its work force to retirement in the next five years, he said. Of that number, about 24 percent are blue-collar workers such as linemen and hydro power operators.

With as many as 400,000 power industry workers eligible to retire in coming years, the potential dearth of trained workers has become a national concern. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has partnered with utilities throughout the country to provide training centers to make sure a new generation of electrical workers has the right skills, said Jim Spellane, an IBEW spokesman in Washington, D.C.

Linemen work is challenging, Spellane said.

"Not everyone likes working 30 feet off the ground with high-voltage lines," he said.

For those who can handle it, the pay is good, he said. "These are the kinds of jobs we need to be creating in America," he said.

And even the slowing economy won't stop the need for workers, he said. There are new demands being placed on the electrical grid as interest in sustainable energy continues to grow.

"The demands even in this economy are going up, not down," he said.

EPUD's scholarships can be used for courses at Lane Community College and other area schools for training in energy management, lineman and renewable energy programs.

For those who want to learn more about the work, EPUD will arrange for opportunities to job shadow EPUD employees. Contact the utility for more information.

SCHOLARSHIPS

For electrical utility training

EPUD: Five $1,250 scholarships for a variety of training programs. Applicants must also be customers. Check online at www.epud.org/documents/Scholarshipflyer09.pdf

Lane Electric: $3,600 single scholarship for lineman training. Check utility's Web site at www.laneelectric.com/volta.htm
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Title Annotation:City/Region; Area utilities take steps to prepare for a worker shortage in a few years
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 17, 2009
Words:726
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