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By Rebecca Kern
Puerto Rico’s electric utility is already facing daunting challenges trying to restore power to nearly 25,000 homes and businesses after hurricanes Irma and Maria. But one more hurdle is emerging—a shrinking workforce.
Jose Gonzalez, a lineman who has worked for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) for 20 years, said the one of the biggest problems with restoration work is that the number of crews is down, due to PREPA employees taking early retirement or being lured to the U.S. mainland for better-paying electric utility jobs.
Nearly eight months after the hurricanes hit the island, 1.7 percent of PREPA’s customers remain without electricity, primarily in La Cordillera Central, the mountain range in the center of the island where it is the hardest to repair the transmission and distribution lines. And losing linemen with technical expertise and U.S. citizenship only makes the restoration work more challenging.
PREPA employees are continuing to do the same work with fewer people, Gonzalez told Bloomberg Environment along a narrow, winding road where his team is restoring power in the Barrio Nuevo neighborhood of Bayamon, approximately 20 miles from San Juan.
“There’s no question about that,” PREPA’s newest CEO, Walter Higgins, told Bloomberg Environment when asked about the worker shortage during an exclusive interview in PREPA’s San Juan headquarters.
Higgins said PREPA pays linemen about half of what utilities offer for identical jobs on the mainland U.S.
PREPA is having to train people working as tree cutters to be linemen to replace those who have retired or left for better-paying jobs, Gonzalez said.
This puts additional pressure on the remaining lineman like Gonzalez. His typical day starts at 7 a.m. and doesn’t end until 7 p.m. He is part of a team of 14 PREPA employees based in San Sebastian. For the past week Gonzalez has traveled 75 miles each way to Barrio Neuvo, which hasn’t had power since Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017.
“A Puerto Rican who is competently trained technically is highly useful, especially in jurisdictions where there may be a large Puerto Rican community, or where Spanish is an important language to be spoken,” Higgins said.
“So as a result, those people are very, very interesting to American mainland utilities, and they offer considerably higher salaries,” he said.
He said that some mainland utilities that came to the island to help with post-hurricane repair work offered jobs in the U.S. to PREPA employees.
And because PREPA has a $9 billion debt, part of the island’s larger $74 billion debt, “we haven’t been taking in and training as many people as we need to meet the need in the future.”
“There’s kind of a diabolical Catch-22 in all of this,” Higgins added. “We can take a lineman, we can train him and get him completely ready, and the minute they’re fully qualified, somebody offers them a job at twice the money.”
Higgins took over as PREPA’s CEO in March. He previously served as CEO of Ascendant Group Ltd., a Bermuda-based energy and infrastructure holding company. He is scheduled to testify at a May 8 hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the state of the island’s electric grid.
Higgins said PREPA is hiring mainland contractors to solve its current workforce shortage.
it will cost more to hire the contractors, who are paid at mainland rates. “This is the great conundrum of managing a workforce where it always costs more to hire contractors than to have your own people,” he said.
“When you’re under financial constraints it’s very hard to hire people,” he added. “You don’t just pluck a lineman out of the ground. It takes years to train a good lineman.”
PREPA is finalizing six-month contracts with several private companies to finish the electricity restoration work, Higgins said. Among them are Cobra Building Envelope Contractors, based in Spokane, Wash.
The Army Corps of Engineers’ emergency power restoration mission ends on May 18, and some members will remain for several weeks to oversee the transition of leadership to PREPA, Maj. Catalina Carrasco, a spokeswoman for the Corps, told Bloomberg Environment.
As of May 6, the Corps has 1,240 personnel on the ground, working to restore power in Puerto Rico. Of the total, 1,062 are contractors, 687 of whom are working directly on distribution and transmission lines.
Meanwhile, PREPA has 1,398 people working on distribution lines and 360 working on the transmission.
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