One of the many factors that made 2021 historic was the state of labor. Across the country, across industries, for many different reasons, people left jobs or changed employers. In settled times, WEC has a fairly settled workforce, with employees regularly celebrating 10, 20, even 30 year work anniversaries with the Co-op. But this past year, WEC experienced the shifting labor market as well, as positions throughout the Co-op turned over.
Change can be healthy, as Board President Steve Knowlton often reminds Co-op staff and members. But it can sometimes be disruptive, and when an essential service provider has too many job openings, it can be a cause for concern. So, this past year, WEC leadership took steps to strengthen WEC’s Operations department. And it appears it paid off.
Former Operations & Engineering Director Dan Weston retired in the first half of 2021, and WEC hired Dave Kresock as its new department head. Kresock brought significant experience not just in utility engineering but specifically in rolling out high-speed fiber. He arrived as the market for experienced lineworkers grew more and more competitive, and nearby utilities were offering jobs to WEC crew members. The Board of Directors was faced with the task of keeping highly skilled, compatible team members working at the Co-op on the verge of broadband rollout, during a labor shortage and a pandemic, just ahead of storm season. In the meantime, WEC is a small utility with some of the steepest, rockiest, most heavily wooded terrain in the state, with shifts in elevation that create wind tunnels and varying types and levels of precipitation. Field work at WEC is tough.
Faced with the potentially dangerous consequences of having an understaffed Operations department, WEC’s Board of Directors considered how to retain staff. This past year, the Board negotiated a raise with the union that represents the line crew, making WEC competitive with other Vermont utilities. Meanwhile, Kresock and leaders in the department focused on making good hires. At the close of 2021, WEC counted seven new staff on the Operations team who’d been hired within the year. They range from highly experienced to fresh out of lineworker school, and, said Kresock, it’s a great team.
WEC’s newest crewmembers are: Gordon Chandler, apprentice lineworker; Rob Duranleau, first class lineworker; Dylan Gagnon, apprentice lineworker; Justin Lemieux, first class lineworker; Ryan Martel, apprentice lineworker; Richard Pateta, member service field technician; and Josh Pierce, mechanic.
“We’ve been lucky to get the guys we did.”Amos Turner, Construction Foreman
Gordon Chandler, who moved to Vermont from Georgia, said that while he’s still getting used to the weather and terrain, “everyone’s been very welcoming.” Longtime Construction Foreman Amos Turner added that the new staff bring a welcome mix of skills and personalities. “We’ve been lucky to get the guys we did,” he said. “Rob and Justin come with a lot of experience from local utilities, and Dylan and Ryan both come from line school in Maine. Josh has been a good asset to the company as mechanic. You couldn’t ask for a better worker than Richard. We’ve been very lucky the last few months.”
Turner had a hand in bringing Apprentice Lineworker Ryan Martel to WEC. Martel was unsure of what he wanted to do after high school, so his girlfriend’s mother suggested he job shadow with Turner, a family friend. “That was two, three years ago,” said Martel. “I liked it. I liked being outdoors, I liked the environment, I liked the crew, I liked the camaraderie, and I applied to line school.” He attended line school in Maine, got some experience, and was hired at WEC. “I knew I wanted to be somewhere back here, close to home, and I definitely did like Washington Electric,” Martel said. “Guess it all worked out.”
Now, team members are working on pole setting and line extensions as WEC works to prepare its grid for broadband rollout and make it more resilient to storms. Kresock is relieved to have hands on deck for pole work and outage restoration. “This last storm, because we just had these new hires start with us, we were able to have another crew out in the field overnight. A lot more cleanup was able to take place with the additional people. It was very helpful,” he reported.
One of the main pluses, Kresock noted, is the wide range of experience new crew members bring, and their interest in learning new skills. “Even Dylan and Ryan are working with the construction contractor setting poles. It’s very helpful to us especially as broadband picks up. We’re going to need that kind of pole setting ability,” he said. “We’re very happy with the group.”