A small foreboding shadow was cast over advanced civilization when PG&E and Southern California Edison temporarily shut down portions of California’s electric grid earlier this month.
“We are not a third world country,” asserted California state Sen. Jerry Hill, who demanded a “root cause” analysis of what is being called California’s new dark age.
Now more shutdowns are planned. Climate change is blamed, but there’s actually something else at play that the media hardly ever mentions.
Serious fallout from the Camp Fire and other terrible events recalls “For Want of a Nail,” where a seemingly small oversight or omission snowballs to major consequences.
An important but overlooked culprit stands to be a chronic shortage of qualified people to maintain infrastructure. Who wants their kids growing up to work for a public utility? For all the children who dream of building bridges or rocket ships, how many will settle for doing maintenance on their grandparents’ infrastructure?
I’ve followed the Camp Fire story closely, along with increasingly serious shortages of technical and trades workers in various parts of the economy.
On Feb. 27, 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported on the long deferral of maintenance on PG&E’s Caribou-Palermo transmission line, which sparked last year’s massive Camp Fire. The utility reportedly said it would do such work in 2013, but never did.
And a 2015 PG&E Career Pathways report — still on the PG&E website — states “Utilities nationwide face a shortage of skilled workers and trained professionals to meet the growing industry demand. In response, we are conducting strategic outreach, engagement and training to create a qualified and sustainable pipeline of candidates for PG&E.”
These shortages, which should constitute a national priority, may also have had a role in the Flint, Michigan, water fiasco and other incidents.
Following the fatal 2010 PG&E San Bruno pipeline explosion, the California Public Utilities Commission “found the utility lacked enough employees to fulfill requests to find and mark natural gas pipelines,” according to a Dec. 14, 2018, Associated Press report.
“Regulators say,” the report continued, “that because of the staff shortage, PG&E pressured supervisors and locators to complete the work, leading staff to falsify data from 2012 to 2017.”
Ever hear of a “utility arborist”?
A utility arborist clears vegetation from the vicinity of power lines, one of many career paths where the human pipeline of new workers has long been insufficient to replace retirees. “It simply is not easy to replace tree workers and this reality is not anything new. Turnover rates are amazing and the stats go back at least 30 years,” wrote Todd W. Baker in the May/June 2018 issue of Utility Arborist Newsline.
Electric utilities are hardly alone in dealing with shortages. An LABC Institute report on “Utility Sector Workforce Development in the Los Angeles Region” stated that “the utility sector [as a whole] faces a potentially huge shortage of increasingly skilled employees.”
“The water sector faces severe workforce challenges in the coming years”, according to an October 2017 report on skills shortages posted by the California Water Environment Association. The American Water Works Association noted similar challenges in its State of the Water Industry Report 2018. In a survey of water professionals, respondents signaled concern over the “loss of trained and experienced employees due to retirements and the shortage of qualified replacements.”
And beyond utilities, a report from the Aviation Technician Education Council (Dec. 2017) pegged the average age of an FAA certified mechanic at 51, “with 27% of the mechanic population age 64 and above.”
Yes, you read that right.
Too often we gloss over information in plain sight if it doesn’t square with what we already believe. So many of us want to believe our children should pursue only their dreams, and become creative disruptors and leaders who think outside the box.
Yet the operation and maintenance of infrastructure — along with many other vital endeavors — requires specialized knowledge, consistency in work output, compliance with regulations and safety standards. It’s work, in other words, that on a daily basis couldn’t be farther out of sync with popular values celebrating artistry, creativity, risk-taking and constant improvisation.
Disruption may be celebrated by entrepreneurs seeking to sweep away old industries and replace them with visions of novel enlightenment. But for most people, disruption is not pleasant, and the public will be reminded of this many times, I fear, in the years to come.
Many, many more young people need to prepare for careers in specialized trades and technical fields.
Otherwise, the trappings of a civilized existence — things we take for granted, like a reliable electricity supply, and clean running water — will be ever more in peril.
Young people who step up to the challenges should be celebrated. Solving big problems cannot be left just to public utilities, or government policy folks.
The solution falls in large part to the public itself — to all of us — and the values we choose to live by and propagate.
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