Aug
14
2017

Powering America with Jobs and More

This week, the PACE blog is coming to you from a beach house on the Georgia coast. In this relaxed setting, I had the chance to sit on the porch swing, iced tea in hand, and reflect in the relative quiet of August recess.

This house has quietly gone about its work since 1880, serving first as headquarters for the Chatham Artillery Club and then generations of those needing a respite from the modern world. It has withstood hurricanes and extreme temperatures. Its features combine the new (wi-fi, Roku, air conditioning) and the traditional (original louvered shutters, cypress paneling, a 1940s era GE refrigerator).

Like the electric power industry, this house is capital intensive, but I feel confident it will be here years from now when my daughter, as an adult, needs a break and some front-porch time. And like this house, the electric power industry has quietly gone about its work for well over a century (Thomas Edison founded the first electric company in 1881) and is now undergoing needed transformations to do its job in a reliable manner for the coming century. The benefits electric power brings us all are too often taken for granted, but here on the porch I reviewed a study that deserves more accolades and attention.   

The Edison Electric Institute, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and the American Public Power Association collaborated over several months on an in-depth study, “Powering America: The Economic and Workforce Contributions of the U.S. Electric Power Industry”. The report is a detailed study of the role that electric utilities play in the nation’s labor force and economy.

Put another way, “[b]ehind every wall outlet or light switch, there is a dedicated workforce focused on powering the lives of millions of Americans who rely on electricity for nearly everything they do.”

Top level findings include that the “electric power industry directly provides nearly 2.7 million jobs across the U.S. through its employees, contractors and supply chain, and investments.”  Additionally, more than “4.4. million jobs are supported through the induced effects of these jobs.” The report’s scope includes investor-owner utilities (IOUs), municipal utilities, co-ops, merchant power, and all major forms of generation (yes, wind and solar are there, too). Transmission and distribution are also taken into account. 

Growing up in Georgia, I was always aware of the friends and relations who either worked for Georgia Power, the city utilities department, or the EMCs (that’s Georgia for electric co-op), but even I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the combined industry supports over 7 million jobs, or nearly five percent of all jobs in the United States. As well, the electric power industry contributes five percent of the U.S. GDP, to the tune of $880 billion annually. 

I knew my cousins, friends, and professional colleagues had good jobs, often among the best in their rural communities. “Powering America” backs up that long-ago impression with data. Describing direct employment, the report finds that:

“The electric power industry requires a highly skilled workforce to build and maintain the energy grid and the electric power system. To attract and retain the necessary skills and talent, median annual wages for direct electric power industry employees are double the national median.17 In 2015, median annual wages for direct electric power industry workers were $73,000. … Including benefits, the median annual compensation exceeds $100,000.”

So, while we can always use good news, why is this report so significant now? Reading through it, there’s a great deal more than a good-news report about the quality and quantity of jobs in the electric power industry.

First of all, the report underscores the industry’s commitment to transformations needed to keep providing affordable, reliable, and clean power for future generations. Projections of increased job growth in the sector are tied to significant investments in making the grid smarter and more resilient.

Second, the study also can serve as a benchmarking tool for other assessments of job creation in the energy sector. When renewable advocates make claims about workforce contributions of rooftop solar or smaller wind farms, policymakers can asses for themselves whether those claims are based on research with methods and data as rigorous as those used to compile “Powering America.”

Finally, the report provides a dose of perspective about how intertwined the electric power industry has been and will continue to be with our economy and workforce. Major changes to electricity policy have a ripple effect across a large pond. This report helps remind us that hasty decisions and one-size-fits-all policies don’t work. The smarter approach involves decision-making grounded in rigorous research and facts that works to the benefit not just of power providers, but to workers, related industries, and consumers of all types. 

Here’s hoping you get your own front-porch time this August and take the chance to toast, whether with iced tea or other beverage, the employees who keep the air conditioning and the ice-makers going.