Utilities Promise More Jobs With Smart Grid

Prospects look dim for meter readers in an era when meters can read themselves and communicate instantly with the home office, but representatives from two large Midwestern utilities all but promised Monday there would be continuing jobs for meter readers and new kinds of jobs from the smart grid.
"For the most part our meter readers aren't under threat of being summarily dismissed. We try to keep them in the house," said Kathleen Thigpen, a senior training specialist at ComEd, during the Great Lakes Symposium on Smart Grid and the New Energy Economy at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Some meter readers will be trained in AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure, Thigpen said. Others are already on a track in which they start as meter readers and transition to jobs as line engineers or substation engineers. "And then there's also a population that we do encourage through reimbursement to retool and reskill yourself so that you can apply for another job throughout the enterprise," she said.
"So our plan is we want to keep the meter readers. We know them. We know they'll come to work on time. We know they're trainable. And so there's a home for them. And so we don't see a wide layoff of meter readers. We want them to stay in the house."
ComEd employs 6,000 people in the Chicago area.
A representative from Ameren said no meter readers would be forced out by the company, which provides energy to most of the rest of Illinois, as well as parts of Missouri. Ameren employs about 9,000 people.
"As we deploy AMI over an 8-year period or so, through attrition, through reassignment, through transitioning, we will have a home for all of those or they'll retire," said Mike Abba, Ameren's Illinois project manager for smart grid technologies.
"We're not gong to force them out. A lot of them in the next six to eight years will reach retirement age and will naturally retire and the rest of them we'll find a home for them somewhere."
Abba identified four areas where the smart grid would create jobs:
1. Smart grid installation will create jobs for technicians.
2. "The second area I see is that we are putting in a lot more technology in the communications area, so there's going to be a need for increased jobs in the area of relay technicians, communications technicians."
3. The smart grid will create a new category of jobs in cyber security.
4. The smart grid will create many "behind-the-grid" jobs for solar and wind installers, network technicians and other workers who will respond to opportunities the grid creates at homes and business. "I think there are going to be a lot of jobs behind the meter, on the other side of the meter, that maybe the utilities won't be directly involved in, but certainly jobs in that area."
According to Thigpen, a new kind of profession has already begun to emerge as a result of the looming implementation of smart-grid technology:
"There are new tasks in old jobs and there are new jobs coming," she said. "These are things that we don't see and we don't really know what they're going to look like. Mike gave you some good categories and I would add, there's a new engineer that's emerging—this hybrid electrical-communications engineer. There's a new field of engineering emerging, and we're going to see a lot more electrical engineers with a strong communications background."

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