The utility industry is in the midst of upheaval. A new report by the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO examined the impact the upheaval had on the utility industry from 2003 to 2015 and identified potential organizing opportunities. The report found that industry changes affected all aspects of the industry, including utility companies, the workforce, and union membership. While changes are happening in the utility industry, the industry as a whole is stable.
Utility jobs grow
From 2003 to 2015, utility companies confronted a number of industry changes, including mounting government regulation, increased dependence on natural gas, technology changes, and greater investment in clean energy. Mergers and acquisitions among publicly-traded utilities continued and resulted in fewer, but ever larger utility companies. At the same time, demand for power and water was at and the price of power fluctuated in the last five years. Ultimately, these industry changes are causing uncertainty for utility companies, which limited employment growth.
At a time when other industries saw major employment declines, the utility industry as a whole grew between 2003 and 2015, increasing from 1.19 million workers to 1.28 million workers. While the utility industry workforce has grown, the makeup of the workforce has changed. The utility industry workforce attained higher education, increased its diversity, and saw strong employment growth in New England, the Pacific, and the West South Central division, which includes Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
Employment for utility industry workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 7%, while employment for workers who only had a high school diploma or less declined by 6%. Diversity, particularly among Hispanic and Latino utility industry workers increased, making up 7% of the utility industry work- force in 2003 and 12% in 2015. Finally, while the industry as a whole had stable employment, some geographic divisions had employment gains, while others struggled, including the Middle Atlantic (NJ, NY, and PA), the West North Central (IA, KS, MN, MI, NB, ND, and SD), and Mountain (AZ, CO, ID, NM, MT, UT, NV, and WY) divisions.
Union membership density in the utility industry held steady at about 30% between 2003 and 2010, but fell to 22% member density by 2015. Historically, union membership would rise and fall with utility industry employment gains and losses. However, in the last five years union membership has been declining even as employment grew in the utility industry during the same period. One explanation for the decline in union member- ship may be uncertainty among the workforce, which was caused by the revenue and price fluctuations and mergers and acquisitions. As confidence in the health of the utility industry rebounds, union membership could also rebound.
Some of the union decline is tied to employment declines in geographic divisions that had high union density, including the Middle Atlantic (employment declines), West North Central (employment declines), and the East North Central ( at employment). These three divisions employed 30% of the utility industry workforce and 44% of union members in the utility industry in 2015. The high concentration of union members in these three divisions has a greater impact on union density in the industry as a whole when employment is down. However, when employment is up in these three divisions, union density is likely to increase as well.