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Supply & Demand Rule Job Growth in Energy Industry

Energy and utility companies maintain a strong need for new employees to fill the gaps. Here's where you might fit in.




Few of us could make it through a day without coming into contact with at least some aspect of the energy and utility industry.

Our homes and businesses depend on electricity for lights. We use natural gas to cook and heat our water and buildings. And many of us count on treated water flowing from our taps, often into drains connected to a community or regional sewage treatment facility.

Still, despite overwhelming demand for services, the energy and utility industry has some curious characteristics, at least from an employment standpoint.

While its products are found nationwide, economies of scale dictate that areas with the most customers often have the fewest power, water and sewage treatment plants. The Department of Labor notes, for instance,  Alaska, with a 2002 population about 10 percent of that of Massachusetts, had about 3 times more electric generating plants than Massachusetts.

And the same holds true in the water business, according to the department. In 2002 it took 45,000 small water systems to serve only 25 million people, while 242 million people living in urban areas were served by just 8,400 large systems.

Another quirk of the industry centers on the types of jobs available. While the equipment involved in producing electricity, treating water or removing sewage is often highly technical, the path to being a plant operator and maintaining distribution systems often requires only a high school or associate's degree that is augmented by intensive on-the-job training.

Combine that with the changing nature of the industry's largest component, the electric sector (currently undergoing significant realignments brought on by deregulation), and the outlook for job growth in coming years is somewhat marginal.

Utilities employed about 600,000 workers in 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with three quarters of the jobs found in the electric power generation, transmission and distribution sector.

Despite the size of the workforce, though, it does not offer widespread opportunities to college grads. Across the industry, many of the jobs were in production, installation, maintenance and repair occupations, all fields that typically require only a high school diploma for entry, reports the government. Only about 13 percent of jobs were in management, business and financial roles, with another 14 percent in professional occupations, such as engineering.

More problematic, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts utility industry jobs will decline by 6 percent through 2012 . The sharpest decline, 22 percent, will be in the natural gas sector, followed by a 7 percent decline in the electricity sector.

According to government employment experts, increased competition, conservation, improved equipment and appliances, and more efficient power plants are all to blame for the decreased need for these utility workers.

Jobs in water and sewage treatment plants, on the other hand, are forecast to increase by about 46 percent, fueled by tougher standards for clean water.

Despite over all job losses, the energy and utility industry does hold pockets of opportunities for those with a strong technical background, as well as grads with degrees in business, marketing, data analysis and office support functions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes increased energy costs have led to renewed interest in renewable sources of power such as wind, solar and geothermal energy. Those currently in engineering and computer hardware and software degree programs may find themselves leaving school with the skills needed for research and development in this emerging field.

Elsewhere, as competition for customers in the gas and electricity sectors increases, those with business, marketing and sales skills will be in demand. There is also a trend in some regions for utilities to deliver more services such as phone and cable to consumers and businesses, which would create new jobs.

While overall the employment picture in the utility industry is somewhat challenging, retirements will continue to create openings, while new technologies aimed at conservation and controlling costs will offer opportunities to graduates with the necessary degrees and skills.

And for those who do find themselves with a job, there's a sense of security in knowing you're holding down a job that most of us can't live without.


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