Front Lines To Power Lines
Electric Cooperative Finds Veterans Good Source Of Talent
By KATHLEEN SHAW
Daily News-Record 12/22/20
For Josiah Sargent, joining the military was an instinctual decision, having come from a long line of veterans. At 17, he joined the Army National Guard, where he planned to rise in the ranks until he grew to retirement age. Those plans came to a head when new leadership took over the infantry post where Sargent was based, and he decided to leave.
Sargent searched for a new career path, jumping from welding to farming before he applied at the Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative at the suggestion of a friend’s mother.
“I didn’t have a clue about electrics or any of that stuff, but she said it was a good job and I should come work here,” Sargent said. “I didn’t get in the first time, but I got in the second time and I love it. I like working there.” SVEC is among a coalition of electric cooperatives implementing the initiative Vets Power Us to pair veterans in need of work with careers on the power lines.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 2018 review, “The Military to Civilian Transition,” approximately 200,000 veterans leave service each year. An estimated 900 cooperative workers statewide will be eligible for retirement by 2028, according to an email from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Scott Peterson, the association’s senior vice president of communications, said the initiative is part of the broader electric utility sector fitting ex-military workers with trade jobs because the work ethic and training of the defense sector well suit the lifestyle of linemen. “The skill sets they developed in the military across the number of disciplines match up very well with what utility companies are seeking in employees,” Peterson said. By connecting with the U.S. Department of Energy and veteran associations, Peterson said utilities are working to establish and bridge connections with veterans before the next wave of retirees leaves essential positions empty. “We have probably about 15,000 potential retirees over the next three years just at electric cooperatives,” he said. “To help fill those roles, we reach out to military veterans and recruit and hire them.” Vets Power Us was launched in 2016 and has recruited 160 electric cooperatives across the country, including eight in Virginia. SVEC CEO Greg Rogers said 10 veterans are employed at the local cooperative, two of whom were hired since joining the initiative.
Rogers said the greatest attribute veterans demonstrate is discipline, which is necessary for utility work because electricity is unpredictable and has a knack for going off at inconvenient times. “Over the career people have, we miss Christmases, we miss holidays, we miss birthday parties,” Rogers said. “Even though we’re very family-oriented, it’s a call of duty so to speak, and what we’ve found is veterans come in with an innate sense of duty over self.”
Peterson said nearly 40% of veterans in the workforce are from rural communities, where electrical cooperatives are a stable employer and continuously broaden services, such as broadband.
Rogers said the teamwork environment, decision-making capabilities and leadership opportunities also play naturally for veterans, whether working on the lines or poring over data in an office setting.
“No matter what your specialty was in the military, we probably have a home for you in our organization because we cover the gamut,” he said. “The best is they’re a mix of boots on the ground, out on the fieldwork and a very highly technical skill set.” Sargent said veterans searching for a new career should consider utility work.
“In general, veterans have good discipline and good work ethics, so that’s what they’re looking for at the co-op,” Sargent said. “Whatever work you do, show initiative and work hard.”