Cooperative Career Awareness, Job Shadows and Internships
Ryan Stuthers pursued an electrical engineering degree when he went to Anderson University, although he wasn’t sure what type of electrical engineer he wanted to be.
“There are a lot of avenues you can take in that career field,” he said. “Anderson does a really good job of exposing you to all of them.”
Even so, one electric career avenue he had never heard about was electric cooperatives. But passing through a career fair on campus his junior year, he ran into Ann Mears, youth and partnership development manager at Indiana Electric Cooperatives.
That day, Mears introduced Stuthers to what a cooperative is — specifically Indiana’s electric cooperatives. “I thought it was fascinating,” he said. “I thought it was a neat concept and couldn’t believe I didn’t know anything about it.”
Their brief conversation led to follow-up emails and phone calls. Those led to a job shadowing opportunity at WIN Energy REMC which, upon graduation from Anderson, led Stuthers to an interview at Tipmont REMC. He didn’t get the job he interviewed for but got a call about a new position more suited for his interests. Hardly a month after graduation in May 2020, Stuthers was hired at age 22 as Tipmont’s distribution engineer.
The position allows him to pursue his diverse interests in many electrical engineering concepts, and not focus on a single aspect. The position also gives him responsibility over engineering and advancing technology, which is unique among his Anderson classmates who took other paths, he noted.
But he said he knows one thing: “If Indiana Electric Cooperatives hadn’t been at that career fair, there’s no way I would have ended up here at Tipmont.”
- Ensure electric cooperatives have a strong pool of candidates to fill future openings in key positions.
- Encourage young people from small towns and rural communities to remain in or come home after college to start careers and raise their families.
- Raise awareness and visibility of electric cooperatives for young people about to enter the job market with no previous knowledge of electric cooperatives or have never considered working for an electric utility.
- Commit cooperative manpower and dollars to staff career fairs around the state to create awareness of cooperative career opportunities.
- Create scholarships, internships and job shadow opportunities for young adults so they can develop a deeper appreciation of electric cooperatives and get hands-on experiences working within the business model.
- Maintain communication with interested students to alert them to opportunities for job shadowing and internships; alert interested graduates of vacancies and facilitate introductions.
- Hire high school graduates who have job shadowed line crews while in school into the lineman apprenticeship program.
- Create within recent graduates a strong desire to work for an electric cooperative — so much so they pursue openings.
- See qualified graduates fill open and newly created positions at cooperatives.
RAISING COOPERATIVE CAREER AWARENESS AMONG YOUNG JOB SEEKERS
Mears said her initial interaction with Stuthers was an example of those she has throughout the year as she participates in career fairs to raise awareness of and educate young adults about career opportunities with Indiana’s electric cooperatives. “The career fairs are also attended by large businesses, like Caterpillar and John Deere, with top-of-mind awareness. However, not everyone knows about electric cooperatives. Many don’t even know where their power comes from. That makes increasing the cooperative brand recognition really important.”
“Not everyone knows about electric cooperatives…that makes increasing the cooperative brand recognition really important.”Ann Mears, Indiana Electric Cooperatives
Mears attends about 10 career fairs throughout Indiana each semester. She also assists local distribution cooperatives with regional career fairs or those in their home area.
Looming on the horizon, Indiana’s electric cooperatives average 20% of employees who are either eligible for retirement in the next five years or are already eligible. And, according to recent studies by NRECA, it’s even higher for executives (general managers, CEOs and COOs) – 45.7%.
With the rapidly evolving technology used for power delivery only expected to increase, cooperatives will have to fill those positions with the best and brightest applicants. It is in the best interest of all electric cooperatives — from the smallest distribution cooperatives to the largest G&Ts to the statewide associations — to work together to make sure the incoming workforce is aware of the wide variety of jobs available, the competitive wages and benefits, and the peace of mind cooperatives provide.
Mears’ job is to help open doors and windows — and some eyes — for young adults to learn about electric cooperatives and get interested in working for them. She said the next major step is for cooperatives to then invite them in.
Her continued contact with Stuthers through his junior year confirmed he was committed to learning more about cooperatives and interested in working for one after college. “We needed to get him connected somewhere,” she said. She reached out to Stuthers’ most local “home” cooperative, WIN Energy REMC, to see if the cooperative would be interested in hosting him for a job shadow.
So, she and Rosie Davis, the now-retired human resources manager at WIN Energy, worked with the cooperative’s engineering department to set up a job shadow the summer before his senior year at Anderson University.
JOB SHADOWING COMPLETED CONNECTION
Once Stuthers visited WIN Energy and shadowed Greg Wolven, the now-retired director of engineering, the “ah-ha” moment came for him.
“What piqued my interest the most was making connections from theory — the vast array of electrical engineering concepts from a bunch of different college classes — to real-world application. I was interested to see there’s a position that exists in this industry that fits me.”Ryan Stuthers, Tipmont REMC
“Greg gave me an overview of not just co-op specific things but all of the concepts that fall within the realm of distribution engineering, all of the technologies and their history and how it’s advancing,” he said. “What piqued my interest the most was making connections from theory — the vast array of electrical engineering concepts from a bunch of different college classes — to real-world application. I was interested to see there’s a position that exists in this industry that fits me.”
He noted it was a chance to see there were jobs where he could pull from and apply the many concepts he had studied, not just focus on one aspect of engineering. “I think that’s what really sold me on this industry.”
“Job shadowing is such a great opportunity to introduce young people to the cooperative and allow them to explore potential career paths,” said Leslie Beard, WIN Energy’s chief operating officer.
She added bringing in young people for job shadowing and internships, which WIN Energy has done both of in the past, is a win for all parties involved. “There’s a lot of value both for the student and for the cooperative because they bring different ideas and new thoughts. And there’s value in showing them there are local professional jobs, whether it’s engineering or marketing or accounting, or whatever, right in their community.”
“Job shadowing is such a great opportunity to introduce young people to the cooperative and allow them to explore potential career paths.”Leslie Beard, WIN Energy REMC
BRINGING THE YOUNG FOLKS BACK HOME
In the past few years, Kankakee Valley REMC hosted its first two summer interns and was working on a third until the pandemic hit.
Their first intern was a marketing/creative writing junior from Ball State University. She worked under the supervision of Amanda Steeb, Kankakee Valley’s director of marketing and communications. The other was a Purdue University freshman who worked with Brandon Sutter, IT systems operations manager. Both interns were from within Kankakee Valley’s service territory.
“We’ve always felt people don’t know what careers are actually available at a co-op,” Steeb said. “You think of electricity, and you immediately just think of linemen. You don’t really think about all the other professions that make up the co-op. So, we thought this was a great way to have that introduction with our youth. And the big picture: small businesses and these small communities want to see the youth come home. Giving them the opportunity to get involved in a cooperative, they can get back into their small communities. Internships were a great way to start.”
Kankakee Valley’s marketing intern wrote news releases, did some design work, updated the cooperative’s website and took the lead on some community outreach programs. While she left the state after receiving her master’s degree, Steeb said she thinks if there had been an opening at the cooperative, she would have come back in a “heartbeat.” “She had a lot of fun with us. But honestly, I think it was just as much fun for us as it was for her.”
The IT intern who worked with Sutter returned to school and continues his education at Purdue.
Steeb noted Kankakee Valley typically doesn’t have a hard time filling positions. “Kankakee Valley REMC has been widely known in our community as being a great place to work. When a job opportunity opens up, it’s not uncommon to have 30 to 100 applicants. That being said, we also know we’re facing a lot of retirements. Getting these interns in, having them get excited about the co-op, having them see the benefits of coming back to this community and working for a co-op,” she said, “may bring some of these interns back. That is the end goal, and I think we’re on the right path to do that.”
Sutter and Steeb noted the increasing need for employees with STEM-related education and experience is also creating some opportunities to work with area schools to raise awareness of electric cooperatives.
Indiana Electric Cooperatives also takes every opportunity to promote cooperative careers at its youth programs targeted to even younger audiences. Mears noted Camp Kilowatt (formerly Touchstone Energy Camp) and the Youth Tour to D.C. are infused with cooperative career education.
“We’re trying to reach kids at a young age with the opportunities available at cooperatives,” said Steeb.
“We’re trying to reach kids at a young age with the opportunities available at cooperatives.”Amanda Steeb, Kankakee Valley REMC
Kankakee Valley also reaches out to the young adults with Operation Round Up scholarships. For a student to get the full scholarship, she noted the student must participate in several activities with the cooperative. These could include attending an annual meeting, attending a community event like the 4-H fair alongside cooperative employees at the REMC booth, job shadowing, and more.
One recent high school student who job shadowed linemen at Kankakee Valley, Kyler Gudeman, is now working alongside that same crew as an apprentice lineman.
OFFER IT AND THEY’LL COME
Often, adults don’t give today’s young people enough credit. But Steeb shared a story about one scholarship winner from last year that emphasizes great future cooperative employees are out there if cooperatives are willing to work with them.
Last year, because of COVID, Kankakee Valley didn’t require the scholarship winners to participate in the usual activities. But one of the winners from the previous year reached out and asked if he could come in and job shadow this year. “I was really impressed with this student. He didn’t have to do anything to fulfill his scholarship requirement, but he had an interest in the co-op and a desire to learn more.”