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The Shades of Green conference, held Sept. 12 and 13 in Portland, was designed to spark discussion, spur change

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: STEPHANIE BASALYGA - Ben Downing, left, vice president of external relations at Drexel Hamilton, participates in a panel discussion during the Shades of Green conference in Portland. The two-day event aimed to spark discussion about ways companies in the energy industry can increase diversity and improve inclusion. When Marie Jordan joined the energy industry during the dot.com boom, she didn't know what she was getting into.

A field engineer fresh out of school working her first job with Pacific Gas & Electric in California, she stepped out on a project to build a substation and realized she was the only woman on the site.

Her colleagues working on the project realized it as well. They immediately gave her a nickname.

"I was the 'skirt,'" she said.

Jordan has since moved out of the field and up the professional ladder, and now serves as president and CEO of Vancouver, Washington-based Peak Reliability But the energy industry has been slow to keep up, at least when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

The American Petroleum Institute in 2010, for example, reported women represented just 19 percent of the gas sector workforce. A 2015 analysis of profiles on LinkedIn, meanwhile, showed that women working in the oil industry made up 26.7 percent of all oil-sector profiles on the professional networking site, compared with 59.8 percent for health care and 30.6 percent for tech, according to Fortune magazine. Other sectors of the energy industry, such as solar, have also come under fire in recent years for showing a lack of diversity.

It's an oversight Ron Brise government affairs consultant for Gunster, doesn't think the industry can ignore for much longer. The U.S. energy and energy-efficiency sectors employ 6.4 million people. But with 50 percent of those positions currently filled by baby boomers who are expected to retire in the future, Brise and Jordan agree that now is the perfect time to change both industry mindsets and practices.

Jordan and Brise were at the Shades of Green Conference in Portland last week to discuss the diversity challenges facing companies in both traditional and renewable energy sectors and brainstorm ways that companies can start to change the face of the workforce.

We spend a lot of time and effort making sure we'll have diverse (energy) resources," Brise said. "We don't spend anywhere near that effort in ensuring our workforce is diverse and inclusive."

Top-down approach

The energy industry's lack of diversity isn't necessarily a case of the leaders in industry sectors like utility companies and gas companies not wanting to change. It's more an issue of those leaders — who are largely white middle-aged men — not knowing how or where to start, Kevin Walker, senior vice president of power supply for Southern California Edison, said.

Even those company leaders who think they are taking the right steps to address diversity issues may be missing the boat. Simply implementing new policies such as those for hiring and recruiting may not be enough.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: STEPHANIE BASALYGA - A panel that featured Melinda Rogers, left, vice president and chief human resources officer at NW Natural, and Kevin Walker, senior vice president of power supply at Southern California Edison, examined the role executive officers play in encouraging diversity in companies in the energy industry."They need to pay attention to alignment up and down the chain," Walker said. "The message sent isn't always the message received. Executives need to do the extra work to make sure the message is heard and (see) how it manifests in day-to-day operations and efforts."

That was the goal when NW Natural began a program to help its upper level officers stay in touch with staff out in the field, many in remote parts of the region. Officers were assigned field locations, which they traveled to once a quarter to talk with employees and provide company updates.

But just putting executives in touch with existing staff isn't always enough to help boost diversity. Sometimes energy companies need to think outside the traditional box when it comes to recruiting and hiring.

NW Natural had struggled with trying to increase diversity in its construction division. No matter how many times they tried traditional approaches to attract potential employees, the results were the same.

We hire in groups of 12, and we'd end up with 12 white men every single time," Melinda Rogers, NW Natural vice president and chief human resources and diversity officer, said.

The utility last year decided to step away from traditional hiring approaches. The utility went to job fairs and connected with groups like Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.

"We didn't talk to our usual contractors; we went after different markets," Rogers said.

Among the 12 people the company ended up hiring from the new reservoir of resources were four women and just one white man. The dozen recruits each started training as the third member of a crew. Although one person ended up dropping out, five of the initial 12 — including two women — have since been converted to full-time hires.

"This showed us that doing it differently got different results," Rogers said. "The success was better than anyone anticipated.

Opening up opportunity

The very natures of the people the energy sector will need to replace retiring baby boomers may well force companies to trade old traditions for new ways in the workplace.

Millennials entering the energy industry, for example, are coming armed with different expectations than generations before them. They're also in possession of technical knowledge and innovative approaches to problem solving.

But the industry, in general, is stuck in traditional approaches that often limit how companies can take advantage of those younger workers. In many utility companies, for example, younger workers or those just entering the field are automatically placed in intern positions in which they tend to assist rather than take leadership roles. In those positions, they're rarely given a chance to participate in decision-making or directing how the company innovates or grows.

That means companies aren't taking full advantage of skills that can help them innovate, something that firms and companies in the energy sector need to do in order to compete in an industry where change happens at an unprecedented rate.

It also means the industry stands to lose much needed talent. While 78 percent of millennials say they would prefer to be in a stable job, 43 percent polled in a survey by Deloitte said they planned on leaving their jobs within two years, with only 28 percent looking to stay with a current employer beyond five years.

The sooner energy companies begin to embrace diversity, the better their chance of keeping that pool of millennial workers with the skills that can help energy companies maintain competitive edges in an industry that's changing on an almost daily basis.

"It's been shown that the more diversity in a group, the stronger and more innovative the solution, and the more successful the company," Rogers said. "It isn't just having diversity, but having more types of diversity: gender, ethnicity, age, economic."

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