Vets in Energy


Power of Vets through Association

Fortnightly Magazine - September 2018

Veterans in Energy was established through the work of the Utility Industry Workforce Initiative. This working group consisted of six utility industry associations — EEI, APPA, NRECA, NEI, AGA and the Center for Energy Workforce Development — four federal agencies — the Departments of Defense, Energy and Labor, and the Veterans Administration — and two labor groups — the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Utility Workers Union of America. Together, they identified new initiatives the energy industry could undertake to support veterans working in energy jobs.

It builds on a prior initiative called Troops to Energy Jobs, another example of when the energy industry came together to support our nation's transitioning soldiers and military veterans.  Troops to Energy Jobs was created in 2010 by the Center for Energy Workforce Development to make it easier for military veterans to find employment in the electric and natural gas utility industries, accelerate their training and employability, and provide a pathway to successful job placement and advancement. 

Once employment is secured, Veterans in Energy provides the opportunity to expand these best practices by connecting military veteran employees to others around the country and by providing leadership opportunities at the state, region and national levels.  It builds on the work of Troops to Energy Jobs by providing additional resources to already-employed veterans to ensure successful transitions, retention and professional growth.

Here you will hear from two veterans, Kevin Baker and Rob Berntsen. They describe how military service imbues men and women with discipline, technical skills, commitment, and leadership attributes, which translates into valuable skills for effective employment in the energy industry. 

PUF's Steve Mitnick: Tell us what your typical day is like?

Kevin Baker: Other utilities might see the Veterans in Energy conference and decide to hire veterans.

Rob Berntsen: I am general counsel for MidAmerican Energy. In our department we've got regulations, regulatory, compliance, government affairs and some energy efficiency. It's heavily geared around the regulatory environment, and on a day-to-day basis making sure that we're compliant with all those requirements and regulations.

PUF: How did your background lead you to this role?

Rob Berntsen: I'm from a place called Marion, Iowa, which is in the eastern part of the state. I've lived in Des Moines for the last four years but have moved all around the country for different jobs and education.

I joined the Reserves right after 9-11 and joined as a JAG officer. I was doing government relations and public service at that time and got called up. I was a reservist, too, so Operation Iraqi Freedom had a lot of reserves that were serving, and I was part of that.

We had one daughter at the time, so when I got called up, my wife and I decided it was best for them to move to her hometown to be close to her parents, who were in Evansville, Indiana. So, they lived there, and I went overseas and did the training, and served in Iraq for the year. Then I came back and we decided to stay in Evansville. When I returned, I began to work for a utility called Vectren.

It's a great company, with great people. But we still had our connections to Iowa. At some point a new governor was selected, and after several years at Vectren, the new governor of Iowa asked me to come back and serve on the Iowa Utilities Board.

My utility experience allowed me to hit the ground, probably not running, but walking really fast. So, I did that for several years, and then left to work at the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. (MISO).

At MISO I oversaw government relations for a number of years. About four years ago, my family came back to Iowa to be in this general counsel role at MidAmerican Energy. I've been doing energy law for twelve or more years now. In my various jobs I've had a great opportunity to see the industry from the utility, regulator and RTO perspectives.

PUF: How did your military experience help your energy career?

Rob Berntsen: The military and the U.S. Army in particular helped me out tremendously for a career in energy in a couple of ways. One was a set of values that the Army lives and operates by that I was trained in and learned. Values like duty, loyalty, honor and integrity - values the military lives by - are cherished in the utility world.

From a more practical perspective, when I was a lawyer in the U.S. Army, I specialized in administrative law, and I learned that specific skill in the military. In the utility world, and the regulatory space in particular, there is a tremendous amount of administrative law. That translated very effectively for me when I entered the energy world.

PUF: Did you face any challenges in transitioning from the military to a career in energy?

Rob Berntsen: Yes. A lot of veterans do have challenges when they come back. A lot of them leave jobs and they're legally entitled to go back to those jobs, so that works out well for a lot of veterans.

But over in a deployed environment, life can be chaotic and frantic, so the transition coming back to civilian life can be a tough one. The military and employers have many programs in place to help with that transition.

The fact that employers realize how valuable military service members can be in their businesses creates a good environment for veterans to come back to and find work. This is especially true in the utility world. It's a great match.

Military personnel are highly disciplined and have technical skills which are critical for working at a utility. But it's the passion, commitment and leadership attributes military personnel have that can't be taught. It's these attributes that translate very effectively into the utility space.

PUF: Have you seen some best practices that help attract and retain folks?

Rob Berntsen: Yes. There are partnerships with the state that have certain programs that veterans and companies can rely on to create synergies. In Iowa, MidAmerican Energy works with Iowa Workforce Development as part of the Skilled Iowa Initiative and Home Base Iowa, sponsored by the Governor and the state economic development department, to notify veterans returning from active duty of open positions. That is a best practice that's been great for us.

Also, at MidAmerican Energy we've developed a tremendous amount of renewables. We are building wind farms all across the state which creates a high demand for skilled workers in this profession. So, the utility itself has a lot of opportunities for veterans but there is also a high-demand renewable industry in the state that is building wind farms. Both of these create a lot of employment opportunities for veterans.

And, of course, Veterans in Energy is a "best practice" all on its own in its efforts to link veterans wanting to work in energy.

PUF: What advice would you give to a man or a woman that's in service, who may be coming home soon, as far as a career in energy?

Rob Berntsen: As you are getting close to the end of your deployment, work with your home state to identify programs that match veterans and utilities. Also, Veterans in Energy is an incredible resource that can help veterans find jobs in the utility industry.

It can also help veterans who want to work in energy transition into a utility job through training and job placement. The technical and leadership skills that veterans can bring to utilities makes these partnerships win-win opportunities for everyone.

Kevin Baker: I work at one of the fossil plants for TVA in Western Kentucky at Shawnee. I'm on the maintenance side of it.

PUF: What do you do every day?

Kevin Baker: I've been here for twelve years and all throughout this plant. I've been to almost every plant in TVA working on the safety side. I've worn a couple of different hats. But I always come back to the tools and being a laborer.

PUF: What did you do before TVA?

Kevin Baker: I was in the military. I joined the Army when I was seventeen, went active duty when I turned eighteen, and spent four years there.

When I came home, I worked for different contractors, and worked a lot for TVA as a contractor from 1999 to 2004. From 2004, I went to Iraq, since I was in the Reserves. Then I came home and went straight to work for TVA.

PUF: Is TVA like the Army or in some ways different?

Kevin Baker: Let me start with the similarities. You've got the camaraderie with your co-workers. You have a chain of command, which is little different than it is through the military.

In a lot of ways, TVA still feels like government. We still worry about budget, and about fiscal years, so that is the same. You still have a feeling of, I know I'm with the government.

PUF: Do you think the military was good preparation for you for your job at TVA?

Kevin Baker: Most definitely. I think everybody should do some form of military service. It's for the discipline, the knowing where you stand, the knowing where you come from, where you're going to go.

I've worked with managers and supervisors that hadn't been in the military. You can tell the different demeanors between who has and hasn't served.

PUF: Tell me what makes it difficult to work for a utility, or any job, for someone coming from the services?

Kevin Baker: When you're in the military, you know what you're going to wear every day. You know what your job is. You know every two to three years, you're changing jobs and doing something different. You go from this year where I may be doing admin work, and then next year I may be in a tank, and then next year I may be a drill sergeant.

Then when you come into the public sector, you're going to do that job for a while unless you really progress quickly. You must get in the routine of doing the same thing over and over.

It's not the same culture. You don't have the same standards on the outside as you do in the military. Most of the military standards are strict.

That comes into play on the safety side, with the safety procedures. That's more of where a veteran would come into play as a positive.

They understand that you must have procedures. You must follow these rules. You must do things a certain way. It's where a military person will have an advantage coming into the workforce.

Military people come with that mentality of knowing they must work hard and prove themselves. They come with that work ethic. Younger kids going to college often don't understand that.

PUF: What can utilities do to attract more people from the military? And to make sure that their first year or two goes well?

Kevin Baker: I think one of the biggest ways is for military posts to have job fairs, and have people come in and talk. It's called Army Career and Alumni Program, or ACAP, for when people are getting ready to get out of the military. They'll have different companies there. If the utility companies could find a way to tap into that, it would be helpful.

A lot of active duty folks go to college while they're active duty. They could start getting the college they need for a utility job.

But it would have to be the utility companies trying to tap into the active-duty community to find out, ok, you're going to be retiring in four, or you're getting out in four years at expiration of term of service. Have you ever thought about utility work as a career? 

And if you say yes, maybe we can help you out. So, when you leave the military, you fall right into that utility job and you know what you're going to be doing.

PUF: You participated in Vets in Energy, which seems to be growing every year. What's your involvement?

Kevin Baker: Last year was my first year going to Vets in Energy. VP of TVA coal operations, Sean Connors, invited me. And, TVA CEO Bill Johnson was there too. I really liked the direction it was going.

As far as our veterans' chapters, I thought we could help many other utilities. We've had a veteran's association at TVA for a long time. Some of the things that other companies were having issues with, we already have been through.

With this only being my second year of getting involved with the Veterans in Energy, I'm hoping to bring that TVA side. Letting other utilities know TVA's been doing this a long time, with thirteen chapters across seven states.

We are scattered. But we're making it work. Let us help where we can. But at the same time, let us learn to make ourselves better.

PUF: TVA and others like Arizona Public Service or Dominion, that have a lot of experience with veterans, maybe have good advice for across the industry?

Kevin Baker: That's what I'm hoping the other utilities start seeing as far as the Veterans in Energy conference. They might say, hey, we want to be veteran-friendly, we want to hire veterans, and maybe we need to attend this, and maybe we need to go see what it's about.

If your utility is having trouble getting started, you can always get phone numbers, emails and information from Veterans in Energy. It's a big networking system.

Same for when I was doing utility safety. We had a big networking conference in San Antonio. That's what made our process better. Because I networked with all those people.

PUF: If you were approached by somebody in the Army, or other services, what would you say to them about the opportunity at companies like TVA?

Kevin Baker: I would try to do everything in my power to help them. I would talk it up. The utility industry is not going away. Power is one thing we must have. It's the backbone of America. If you don't have power, you don't have anything else.

It's a good fit. There's so much fine-tuning details that you must follow to keep these plants running, to keep the lights on, to keep power moving down the power lines. It is a satisfying job. It is satisfying work. At the end of the day, you know that you're doing something that can make a difference.