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Austin Energy says Decker employees will be prepared for transition

Friday, May 17, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Belated plans to decommission two aging steam turbines at Decker Creek Power Station have brought into question the futures of the estimated 39 employees who will be out of work when the last steam unit shuts down in late 2021.

In March, Council Member Kathie Tovo voiced her concern, requesting monthly updates from Austin Energy to discuss ongoing efforts at helping the workers transition into other jobs, but Charles Dickerson, the utility’s chief operating officer, says he is not worried about their futures.

Dickerson told the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee on Wednesday that employees are already getting connected with professional development resources to assist them as they decide what to do next.

While he was unable to predict how many of those roughly 39 employees would find placements within AE or in other city departments, Dickerson said he had “a high level of confidence that we’ll have very few people disaffected.”

Part of the difficulty, as noted by Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart, is that the workers will have to compete for jobs through a standard application process rather than receiving offers from city departments or simply being placed in new positions.

For example, Hart said, “We can no longer transfer power plant engineer 1 from AE to a water treatment plant; they have to compete heads-up for the position.”

However, employees wishing to apply for positions with the city will receive the benefit of preferred interview status, said Monika Arvelo, assistant director of Human Resources.

Further, as part of the Decker Creek Power Plant transition plan that took effect Jan. 31, 2019, the 69 employees currently working at or connected with the plant are being offered career development assessments to help them broaden their understandings of their skill sets.

Dickerson said the hardest thing for many workers is to see how useful their skills are in other professional settings. The assessments, he said, use a questionnaire format to show them that if they are able to work on Decker’s piping systems, for instance, there are numerous other professions they could potentially pursue if they choose not to look for identical work.

“I started my career off working at a power plant, even though I’m an engineer,” he said. “The skills that you pick up working at a power plant are very transferable to any number of positions and jobs, not only at Austin Energy but throughout the city.”

So far 38 people have completed the individual assessments, which will be available through the end of March 2020.

Following those assessments, AE will also be providing free career coaching and skills training modules for workers wishing to learn new skills, even if they are unrelated to the employee’s current job or skill set.

Training should be available for any skill that the city needs and can teach, Dickerson said.

With the utility preparing to decommission one of the steam turbines sometime after fall 2020, Dickerson said the time between then and the closing of the final unit in fall 2021 will be used to provide skill training and career coaching for the employees.

“We’re basically going to have far more people than what we need to run the remaining unit,” Dickerson said. “But we’re doing that by design so that people can actually train and take classes and do things during the day where they otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to do if they were working.”

When the time comes for the reduction in employees, the utility will be providing a 120-day notice to those affected. The station will be keeping on roughly 38 employees to maintain the plant’s four gas turbines that will remain online.

The utility also reports that 22 of the current 69 employees who could be impacted are already eligible for retirement or will be by the time the steam units are shut down.

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