Electric cooperatives offer career opportunities and exciting growth in up-and-coming sectors of the energy industry
Mary Garcia, senior member service representative for Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative in Seminole, Oklahoma | Photo by James Pratt
There’s never been a better time to work at a rural electric cooperative. As the energy industry evolves, new possibilities await individuals interested in the career of a lifetime. What better way to support the sustainability of rural America than by serving a local utility founded and focused on the needs of its members.
From accountants and communications professionals to lineworkers and mechanics, electric co-ops offer a vast range of employment prospects. Co-op careers are respected nationwide for providing financial stability, professional development, excellent benefits and advancement opportunities. There are more than 42 million co-op members across the nation who own generation, transmission and distribution assets among not-for-profit electric cooperatives in the United States. This sector of the energy industry is poised for exciting growth in the next few decades as local co-ops build on their strengths and welcome emerging lines of business.
Culture shifts and trending roles
“Over the next five years, we’ll see many folks reach retirement eligibility, and we’re estimating about 16,000 jobs will open up across the national network,” says Michele Rinn, senior vice president of human resources at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
One of the top positions slated for vacancy is senior level executives such as general managers or CEOs. Rinn explains these administrative changes will usher in a new era of co-op leadership.
“We’re going to see some healthy culture shifts within the cooperatives from new leadership and strategic planning to meet new challenges,” she says.
For many co-ops, new areas of expansion include broadband internet and cybersecurity, but there’s also a consistent demand for engineers.
“As energy supply portfolios become more diverse, younger employees are more interested in the renewable space, but we still need engineers to manage our current infrastructure,” Rinn says.
A poster child of the power industry, lineworkers also are essential, and co-ops are actively recruiting within high schools and community colleges to connect with rural residents.
“We want to attract local, young folks to cooperatives, and in some areas that involves providing scholarships and training dollars to hire employees who will continue to live in rural America,” Rinn says.
Another incentive to co-op employment is the benefits. Health insurance, retirement plans and paid leave are staples of the co-op benefits package.
“Once you learn the cooperative model, you can take your NRECA years of service with you should you decide to move to a different co-op that has the same retirement plan,” Rinn says. “The way we strive to serve our communities is powerful, and we want to keep those folks.”
Growth in technology requires more than additional technicians and engineers. Office support personnel and data analysts are vital to the co-op landscape and fulfill roles related to enrollment and customer service.
“As more data becomes available, we’ll need more qualified individuals skilled in the analysis of performance trends and metrics,” says Desiree Dunham, NRECA workforce program manager.
Another up-and-coming sector of the industry involves positions in human resources. As more people enter the co-op field, the important task of onboarding and retaining good employees becomes a critical component of office operations.
“We’re seeing a lot of new faces join that group with between one to three years of co-op experience, and others are taking on more responsibility as they move into different roles,” Dunham says.
Nationwide mentoring for local growth
NRECA currently facilitates two national mentoring programs: one specializing in information technology and the other designated for HR and benefits professionals. These groups provide professional development and an extensive network of support for individuals such as Maranda Babb of People’s Electric Cooperative in Ada, Oklahoma.
“It’s nice to talk to other HR professionals who have co-op experience and share ideas,” Babb says. “There’s so much value to be gained from hearing what has or has not worked well at other cooperatives.”
After joining PEC in 2014 as a member account manager, Babb worked her way up to director, then vice president of HR. With the support of her cooperative, Babb achieved a significant career goal in December 2020 when she received the Society for Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional credential that is recognized internationally. Her participation as a mentee in the NRECA program involved meeting quarterly with peers in Colorado and South Carolina, and this year she is transitioning into a mentor role.
“All co-ops have the same member-focused mindset and common goals that unite us,” she says. “When you build a positive culture of transparency and trust, you will find co-op employees that serve one another for the greater good of our members. This is what I truly believe makes working at a co-op unique.”
Babb’s experience in the national HR mentoring program also contributes to her membership in a state organization of co-op HR specialists dedicated to upholding the mission, values and integrity of Oklahoma’s 30 co-ops.
“We give our employees the confidence to make the decisions they’re hired to make. We want to make sure our hires are a good fit for the job and that our co-op values align with theirs, both in their personal and professional lives,” Babb says.
Maranda Babb (left), vice president of HR for People’s Electric Cooperative in Ada, Oklahoma. Daniel Franco (right) has been with Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative for 14 years and says he enjoys going “above and beyond” for members. | Photos by James Pratt
The co-op family
Mary Garcia remembers when she was hired on her birthday in the fall of 2005 to work at Canadian Valley Electric Cooperative in Seminole, Oklahoma. A grandmother with experience in customer service, prepaid legal and restaurant management, she joined the CVEC team as a member services representative and quickly grew to love her members and peers.
“The No. 1 benefit of my job is the relationships. Co-workers are more than friends, we’re family, and we take care of each other,” Garcia says.
Two years after her start date, CVEC offered Garcia financial support to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a local university in Shawnee. She seized the opportunity to study business and learn about the core principles that had shaped her new career.
“As my courses progressed, I began to understand how the co-op system works—how it’s centered on members. It’s a field I would recommend to anyone,” she says.
Garcia graduated in 2008 and chose to continue her education on her own dime, earning a master’s degree in management in 2010. One of two senior member representatives, Garcia is fluent in Spanish and uses her friendly, patient demeanor to navigate the variety of calls that come across her desk. She and her co-workers lean on each other, and she’s proud of their work ethic. It’s the same kind of pride fellow CVEC employee Daniel Franco feels as he works a troubleshooting call. A lineman with his own service truck, he joined CVEC more than 14 years ago and finds great satisfaction in helping members with their electricity needs.
“When I’m handling complaints, fixing lights or turning the power back on, I like to go a little bit above and beyond,” Franco says. “It’s a very rewarding job.”
A husband and father of two children, Franco’s competitive CVEC wages and benefits support his family. And while an ice storm or spring weather event may require some overtime, his skills are essential to co-op members at home and abroad.
“I was one of 13 linemen who visited Guatemala in 2017. We spent three weeks working in a remote village way up in the mountains. It was a very humbling experience,” he says.
Like Franco and Garcia, Babb says her co-op job not only is a gratifying career but also her passion. Co-workers are family, and when employees are appreciated, it shows in the happy members they interact with every day.
“We wouldn’t have a job or purpose without our members, and when you work hard and give it all you’ve got, there’s no limit to what we can achieve together,” she says.