We are excited to have top-level support at the company to drive this work and to make a big impact, says Consumers Energy’s Director of Talent Pipelines, Sharon Miller. The visibility of DEI as a priority was accelerated by the national traumatic events in 2020. We have a CEO who frequently says, this is a movement, not just a moment and is willing to back that up. We can use the TPM model to monitor progress throughout the pipeline, and really close the gap in representation.
Electric Line Workers Needed in Next 4 Yrs.
Like many companies in the energy industry, Consumers Energy, Michigan’s largest electric and natural gas utility, is faced with increased competition for talent and an aging workforce while trying to maintain quality service and grow its business.
In 2015, as part of the statewide Michigan Energy Workforce Development Consortium (MEWDC), Consumers started an electric line workers training program, partnering with several community colleges to help meet its talent needs for this critical role, leveraging the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) program. Although the line workers training program had been running successfully for five years to fill open jobs, decrease onboarding costs, and improve retention, a critical element of success was missing: when Consumers management analyzed data on the 250 new hires from the program — only five were minorities.
CEO Garrick Rochow made it clear to his management team that the company had to increase the number of minorities and women hired into its ranks to reflect the community they serve. Rochow sees it as essential to ensure diversity of thought in developing innovations for customers, problem solving, and eliminating waste. In addition, as a federal contractor the utility is required to make good faith efforts to meet diversity goals that reflect the markets served by the utility (Currently 48% of roles in operations and engineering reflect the diversity of the available qualified labor pool in Consumers’ labor market shed).
In the fall of 2019, the company launched an aggressive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative to close the gap in female and minority hiring with line workers as one of the primary objectives. First, Consumers had to understand what was preventing minorities from enrolling in the line worker’s training program, which prepared people for jobs that pay $38 an hour to start.
According to Sharon Miller, Consumers Energy’s director of talent pipelines, the utility found the year-long program was too long for many potential low-income candidates to afford. This meant Consumers couldn’t just rely on two community colleges that had developed full-year training programs for line workers. They had to develop more innovative ways of working with education partners that could attract low-income candidates. In the end, Miller’s team used key elements of the TPM framework to design and implement a solution. Solving this talent supply problem was more compelling than ever because Consumers expected to hire 124 electric line workers in 2021 and another 100 for each of the next four years (Employers defining specific talent needs, including job projections, is a critical step in TPM Strategy 2).
“We used the data to stop and say, ‘Where are we and how do we improve?’ We need to close the gaps caused by increased demand and inadequate minority hiring uncovered in the data analysis after four years running the program,” says Miller. So, she and her team approached four other community colleges around the state about designing a more condensed training program (Co-designing talent pipelines with provider partners is a comprehensive exercise explained in TPM Strategy 5).
Understanding Successful Employer Training
To redesign line worker training, Consumers carefully rethought the competencies needed by apprentice line workers (TPM Strategy 3 explores how employers more clearly communicate their essential hiring requirements). The new training was delivered in a bundle of four courses that students could take at their own pace, such as industrial safety, basic electricity, and Energy Industry Fundamentals (a nationally recognized credential course). In addition, the final course would still be an 11-week climbing school in Marshall, Michigan, for those who had qualified.
To increase the likelihood of recruiting minorities into the new program, Consumers chose education partners in communities with diverse populations in their service territory, such as Jackson, Flint, and Grand Rapids (TPM Strategy 4 shows how employers can better understand which providers are current or potential players in their talent supply chain. It also helps highlight organizations invested in prioritizing DEI, so employers can partner with those providers actively serving diverse populations).
Building Qualified Talent
The utility ran its first pilot of the revamped line workers training in spring of 2021 and, as a result, produced twice as many qualified job candidates. Management expected about 25% of the candidates would be minorities, but that number was only about 10%. Miller said, “We realized we have some learning to do to be a better partner with the community-based agencies in areas where we’re offering the program. We want to be an inclusive place of employment, so they’re comfortable referring people for employment and the training needed to get these great jobs.”
Miller’s team found a major obstacle in enrolling minorities was the perception that Marshall, the location of the 11-week climbing school, was not a diverse community. Thus, it was not seen as welcoming to minorities. There were also concerns about the length of time participants were away from home during the final 11 weeks. This created not only financial burdens for participants, but also emotional resistance to leaving their families for so long.
Next Steps for Improving the Program
An important step was engaging with leaders in minority communities in Flint, Lansing, and Grand Rapids to introduce them to community partners in Marshall. The utility needed to convince influential minority leaders that a rural town like Marshall would be a comfortable, diverse-enough environment for the 11-week training.
Miller’s team also recognized that relocating to Marshall for almost three months was an economic barrier for some candidates. Consumers secured $100,000 in funding from a private foundation to support the cost of meals and housing in nearby college dorms for candidates with demonstrated financial needs. Finally, they also connected with community partners who could help families survive economically while one family member was away in Marshall being trained for what would be a much more secure, high-paying line workers job. Performance data from the new system will be evaluated to continually improve the process.
Minority employees play a critical role in recruiting and giving new hires sense of belonging.
First, more minority employees at Consumers must be involved in the utility’s recruiting process and implementation of the training initiative. “We have to help individual minority trainees feel like they belong here, instead of just joining a cohort of all white males in the training. We want them to see others like them in the classroom, if not classmates, then the trainers or other employees at our company need to spend more time in the classroom. It’s never easy to be the ‘only one’ of something in any environment,” says Miller.
Miller recognizes that Consumers also needs more minorities who can act as a guide or an advisor for the trainees, people who trainees can relate to in the company. This is not the same as being a mentor, she observes. It is different because they are there to really instill a sense of belonging — a relationship truly focused on DEI issues in the frontline workforce, not just general career issues.
Asking minority employees to take on additional roles as advisors requires added rewards.
The challenge then is how to ask minority employees to perform the extra task of advising trainees, while also doing their regular job, without additional compensation. How can Consumers reward employees for serving in this coaching capacity? What is in it for minority employees who support these efforts, not just in financial terms, but also in career growth? “How is it truly valued by the utility that they’re playing this important ambassador role. That challenge is going to get bigger as we more frequently call on our colleagues,” says Miller.
Don’t assume the bridge between education and a job is easily crossed. Support is needed.
Finally, Miller’s team has come to recognize it is not necessarily a short leap from training to securing a job. People who have grown up with more resources and access to education tend to assume that getting trained automatically translates to employment. But for opportunity populations it’s not a short bridge from education to work. “We’ve learned that we need to help them over the bridge once they have completed training to employment—there are challenges that exist and we want to help them navigate those obstacles so they can reap the rewards of their hard work,” Miller concludes.
This case study was written by Dr. David DeLong of Smart Workforce Strategies. Learn more about Consumers Energy Electric Line Workers Program.