Considering a new trade? BC Hydro will need a lot of workers very soon

Debbie Nagle, BC Hydro’s VP of human resources, oversees staffing for the 5,500-person company

As blue-collar boomers retire en masse, BC Hydro plays a game of HR chess

In January 2014, a storm hit the Peace River region, generating winds of up to 125 kilometres per hour, knocking trees onto power lines and cutting power for some 30,000 customers. With lines meandering off roads and deep into the woods, some BC Hydro crews had to use snowmobiles and snowshoes to get around for what turned out to be three 16-hour days. It was an effort that required 26 response teams from as far away as Vancouver Island.

Staffing for that response was not easy, but it’s par for the course for BC Hydro, which has 5,500 employees scattered across the province (not including hundreds of tradespeople working on dam upgrades or at subsidiaries like Powerex) ranging from engineers and hydrologists to linemen and electricians. B.C.’s largest public utility (and the number five company on our Top 100 list) has the unenviable task of covering a territory of almost a million square kilometres, with power lines that stretch over multiple mountain ranges and through a diversity of climates. When a storm hits, BC Hydro is required to act fast—and with a lot of bodies.

Perhaps the top HR challenge facing BC Hydro is not the size of its territory, however, but the age of its workforce. Jobs key to “keeping the lights on” will be hit particularly hard by mass retirement, according to a 2013 B.C. Utilities Commission report. Approximately one-third of current Hydro employees will be eligible to retire in the next five years. The number is even higher for line technicians, at 38 per cent, and dam and power station technologists, at 43 per cent. Hydro’s 120-person human resources department is well aware of all this—and is planning for the future.

When Debbie Nagle, BC Hydro’s vice-president of human resources, sits down with her senior-level counterparts, the conversation about who is needed where—whether for an executive role in Vancouver or on the ground at an upgraded dam in Campbell River—often takes place five to 10 years before a hiring decision is made. “We try to recruit apprentices from where we need to hire them,” says Nagle, who notes that engineers and electricians often visit local high school classrooms to make the pitch for a career with Hydro. And early outreach programs aren’t only for the trades. The utility recruits students in programs as diverse as biology, forestry and electrical engineering—even students with no relevant training—to spend a summer in the field shadowing current employees.

Such early scouting makes sense when considering the full scope of BC Hydro’s most important capital projects, many of which are in remote valleys in rural districts. Where Hydro operates close to cities, its pool of potential employees—electricians, power-line technicians, cable splicers and engineers—is large thanks to schools like the British Columbia Institute of Technology and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. But up north, home of some of BC Hydro’s highest-budget projects, there are fewer qualified workers for hire. For capital projects like the North-West Transmission Line, a $74-million line betwee Skeena Substation and a new substation near Bob Quinn Lake in the far north, finding qualified workers is tough, meaning often they come from the Lower Mainland instead.

A related challenge for BC Hydro is that, in recent years, B.C. has lagged at turning trainee apprentices into qualified tradespeople. A 2004 shakeup of B.C.’s apprenticeship programs made employers responsible for a bigger share of training. Those changes correlated with a dramatic fall in the percentage of apprentices who went on to join the workforce: from 53 per cent in 1995 to 34 per cent in 2013. With fewer apprentices making their way through the system, and worries that future projects would tighten supply, BC Hydro launched its own trades school in 2013—a project that was years in the making. The company budgeted $20 million for the new Trades and Technical Training School in Surrey to train around a hundred new recruits a year, in addition to the roughly 400 apprentices on payroll. About one hundred have graduated so far.