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Powering America

Here are five examples of energy workers who have overcome their disabilities to make valuable contributions to these appreciative utilities.

When seen from space, the outline of the U.S. appears to shine. Our lights burn brightly because of the people in the utility and energy sector. In a world where  lights often flicker the constancy of our lights is due to the dedication and  talent of America’s  utility workers  Meet some of them here.


Turning A Disability Into An Asset

Melissa Skyer, an environmental specialist for Southern California Gas Company and one of 7,500 employees, traveled 2,000 miles for a  first impression.
“I relocated from Chicago for this job and even in the interview, I could tell I would be working with wonderful people and that alone  was enough to move 2,000 miles. Everyone is very supportive of each other. There’s a wonderful corporate culture and they support a work/ life balance. This company supports professional development, and I take advantage of all the training opportunities that are out there.”
Skyer’s initial impression was spot on.“My experience here has been fantastic.”
She’s enjoyed access to upper management.
“Upper management is very involved in all levels of the company, and that’s phenomenal. You can meet with someone three levels up you and  they’re actually interested in what you have to say. I find that remarkable.”
Skyer also remarked about the trust that upper management has in Southern California Gas Company’s employees.“We’re all professionals  and all adults. If you have a job here, you know what you’re doing and they give you the flexibility to balance your work and the rest  of your life.”
Southern California Gas Company doesn’t just settle for caring for its employees. It’s also a steward of the environment. “We go above and beyond in environmental stewardship. We comply with federal and state laws, but we go beyond that to protect southern California’s  resources.”
Jimmie Cho, Southern California Gas Company’s vice president of HR diversity & inclusion, notes that the utility also cares about the communities it serves.
“We are a member of the community at large. We’re not just a company.  We serve a very diverse community and we make sure our work force at all levels reflects that diversity,” says Cho, adding that Southern California Gas Company views what it does not only as a business, but  also a partnership.
“We give top priority to our customers and their safety. We want to make sure we’re the most accountable partner we can be.”
Cho agrees with Skyer regarding the trust and flexibility that  Southern California Gas Company gives to its employees.
“We expect great results, high performance, and entrust and empower our employees to get the job done and give them the flexibility to do that.”
Disabled employees like Skyer, Cho says, are an asset to the company.
“We look at our employees with what other see as disabilities as assets. They help us better communicate with our customers in similar situations. Melissa’s hearing impairment is a huge advantage for us.  It’s a plus. I am very, very proud and lucky to have great employees like Melissa at our company. Our people are our greatest asset.”
Skyer believes that students aspiring to work in the utility/energy sector and Southern California Gas Company should complete their higher education, and exercise patience when you launching your career.
“If you can go further to contribute to your professional skill set, you should. I went to school at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York, and that definitely helped me get this position.  Be patient with job opportunities when you’re first starting out. I started with environmental work, monitoring for air pollution. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, but I got to transition to wetlands and biology. Take experience when you can get it and build a reputation.”
Skyer’s patience put her exactly where she wants to be – a mix of office and in the field.
“I am an environmental specialist for the Natural Resources and Land Planning department, which is a subdivision of Environmental Services. We support other operating groups like Transmission and Distribution, and we make sure they have all the environmental permits they need. I do water permitting and endangered species permitting. It’s a great job. It’s a nice balance of office work and field work.”
Her ability to focus on her ultimate goal served her well when she lost her hearing.
“In 2006, I lost my hearing and became profoundly deaf. It was a sudden, overnight incident. I was in graduate school at the time, and  I got through it by just plowing ahead. I didn’t take any time off from school and still got a 4.0. I took classes with interpreters. My brain had to restructure. I switched from auditory to visual and that was a huge transformation, but RIT was fantastic with providing services. They provided the interpreter and I was able to finish my degree on time.”
Today, it’s Southern California Gas Company that provides the services that make Skyer an essential employee.
“I’m fluent in sign language, so I use interpreters for large  meetings and most of the time, I use email.  A video phone is set up where I can speak through an interpreter.  We did struggle with firewalls when setting that up, but the IT department was very 
committed to making it work.  I use the phone for conference calls about 10 times a week. I would not be able to do my job without the video phone.”

Picking Up Where He Left Off
Mark Bowles, En tergy’s director of inclusion, is one of 15,000 employees in nine states. In his current role, he oversees En tergy’s  diversity and inclusion programs, Diversity Council, em ployee engagement surveys, and employee resource groups, such as Women in  Nuclear or Working Mothers. But he’s worn many hats at Entergy.  Bowles knows a great deal about the company because of his various 
roles.
“I had worked in the environmental field, which is how I started with Entergy and had worked in environmental at Entergy for five years. It was very comfortable. I knew all the programs and procedures, which I pretty much set up. I was in my comfort zone. One of the directors  asked me to coordinate the budget for the whole program. He asked, ‘Do you want to stay in environmental for the rest of your career?’ I 
said, ‘No.’ He said there was a budget administrator position at one of the coal plants. I had to move my family, and have a lot of faith in that plant manager. I relied upon his confidence in me to do that job. Then I moved to auxiliary superintendent at another coal plant. 
Then I became a superintendent. Then I got a phone call and was asked if I wanted to go back into environmental, and then got another call to see if I wanted to head up the diversity initiatives program.  Relying on others steadied me. I relied on them to know these new  areas and I had them coach me. I was self-sufficient. I also learned how others could help me. They knew better than me, and that was a  shift.”
And what has Bowles learned from his many moves?
“You have to accept that there will be butterflies. You just put the primary components of your new job into place as quickly as you can. 
You have to figure out who’s good at doing what.”
Adapting on the fly has also helped Bowles with disability. “When my stroke occurred, I moved on pretty quickly and was pretty resilient. I kept doing the things I love doing, such as oil painting. My paintings are really detailed and take three to six months. I scuba dive, and I still do that twice a year in pretty neat places with one of my sons. I just kept doing what I’ve been doing.  You can either let it bog you down or come out stronger. I came out  stronger. It allows me to look at people with disabilities totally different. I know so many people with disabilities greater than mine and they also persevere. It helped that I had so many people helping.
Bowles’s stroke affected the retina in his right eye, which sees only gray. “I have to really focus on the left side when I’m seeing anything. It’s been a year and a half since [the stroke] occurred. It affects everything I do, from driving to working at a computer and the impact has been primarily on depth perception. For example, I  avoid parking in a garage.”
It’s also helped him to have Entergy as an employer.
“My No. 1 worry following the stroke was my job. ‘How will I get to work?’ I wondered. Entergy was great. Folks just said, ‘Tell us what you need.’ They set up my office to make it easier for me, and adjusted the monitor and increased font sizes. They even adjust the  podiums when I speak so that I can see the screen well and that the screens not too bright, which makes it difficult to read. Everyone pitched in. It’s a great company. I know people who don’t enjoy their work, and I tell them how great Entergy is.”

Who’s Blind? He Skis Downhill
Dennis Devendra, a manager in IT at American Electric Power (AEP), is one of 19,000 employees in 11 states. He oversees 14 AEP employees and about the same number of contracted employees. AEP is one America’s biggest utilities, and soon after being hired, Devendra’s boss startled him.
“When I first started at AEP, I was in the project office,” he recalls. “It was IT, but it was in project management. I’m in the office and my boss comes up to me and says, ‘I want you to get your project manager certification.’ He was my boss and he just hired me.  Getting a fancy certification is a huge deal. It takes months and months of studying. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’  Then I thought, ‘How am I going to do that?’ Then I thought: ‘There’s no way I won’t  do it.’
As he has done throughout his life, such as teaching himself to downhill ski (after he lost his sight, no less), Devendra focused on what he had to do to accomplish the task at hand.
For the certification, his boss provided someone to help him study for the test. After a lot of studying, he took the test. “It was 200 questions; somebody read them to me.”
Not surprisingly, he passed.
Devendra’s can-do attitude also helps with his current hobby of  woodworking: he makes exquisite bowls. Visit his website:  www.blindwoodturner.com. He plans to teach people how to teach blind people to woodturn.
“I’m a blind guy. It’s a hereditary eye disease that’s called Retinitis Pigmentosa or RP. I didn’t realize I had a problem until I was 20 years old and the first time I went to an ophthalmologist. The symptoms are night blindness and tunnel vision. I always figured if  you turned off the lights, you don’t see. I didn’t realize I saw less than the people around me. I had symptoms in high school that I didn’t recognize. I was a caddy at the OSU golf course and I couldn’t  follow the ball. I could hear it, but couldn’t follow it. I could only see a small part of my field of vision. The optometrist didn’t 
recognize it because they were only measuring the sharpness of my vision.
“After I was diagnosed, he told me I was going to go blind. Nothing changed at first. Eventually things got worse and I stopped driving 
when I was 27; I should have stopped sooner. I once went through an intersection and didn’t see the stop sign. I pulled aside and said,  ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I gave the keys up right then. It was hard to give up those activities that are part of independence.
“The key is to realize that there are limitations, to accept, them,  and to move on. Like in the case of getting a job, what do you need  to do to see the screen or how can you read the characters on the screen? ”
Devendra likes how AEP interfaces with its communities.
“The coolest thing about AEP is how much they engage their employees in all the different aspects of not just work, but their lives away from work. We have a lot of family and community events, donate a lot of money to the community, and have ethnic, gender and interest clubs.”
If you want to work for AEP, Devendra has some advice.
“You’ll be served by a willingness to learn, good communication skills, and the ability to work with other people,” he says.  Understanding of basic technology will also be useful.
“When we hire, we ask questions about their background, and give various scenarios to determine if they have the ability to adapt.” Devendra suggests applicants get a sense of their untapped potential, whatever their disability may be.

Company & Dog Brighten His Day
Michael Franczak, who is a utility person in the Health Physics Division at PPL Corp. and one of 17,000 global employees, has great  news for someone considering a career in the utility/energy sector.
 “Our company is growing and is hiring hundreds of people a year for the foreseeable future to meet our business needs so we can continue to provide the best energy that our customers want and deserve.”
Franczak raves about the diversity of PPL’s people.
 “You have all types, and they have been so helpful to me over the years. When I lost my eyesight, they were kind enough to surprise me with a computer. They’ve since added talking programs so that I can communicate when I’m at home. PPL gave me the programs and the training and if I needed any more training or technology, that  wouldn’t be a problem. The guys in the computer group help me when I have any problems. These people are amazing, like a family.”
With more than 100 sites in the U.S. and the U.K., PPL’s offices are as diverse as its people, ranging from a four-person plant in rural Montana to more than 2,000 people at its corporate headquarters in downtown Allentown, Penn.
Franczak is proud of his work site.
“I’m getting to work at a nuclear power plant. How many people get that opportunity? Several years ago, another blind person worked at one of the Florida plants for another utility. He was working in the guard shack and asked for a Seeing Eye Dog; they turned him down.” 
Franczak believes that PPL operates the only nuclear plant in the country that allows a blind employee to have a companion dog.
Franczak’s dog is his constant companion … and a literal lifesaver.
“A couple times, crossing the street at one particular corner where the echoes make it tricky, he saved my life.”
His animal companion named Archer was supplied by the local Blind and Visual Services Group, which made a home visit to show him how to better rearrange his house. It took about a year for Franczak to get Archer.
“He’s my lifeblood. He goes everywhere with me. He’s sitting at my feet right now. He’s a little over nine and a half and getting ready  to retire. He’s getting a little tired, but when we get home, he still runs up the steps to get his toys and his bones. I live in the country and he loves to walk. He’s the nicest, most amazing animal.  It brightens people’s days to see him.”
Franczak’s days are also brightened by working at PPL.
“I’m just glad I can go to work. Being around people is great.  They’re diversified and I like that.  If they were the same, it would  be a boring world.”
After Franczak went blind resulting from glaucoma and possibly a stroke, did he wonder if he could continue to work at PPL?
“It’s been eight or nine years since I’ve lost all sight. I thought, ‘Now what am I going to do?  How will I get to work? Will I even have a job?’”
His sister suggested they contact the county Blind and Visual Services Department, where a staffer told him “It looks like you’re  in the darkness forever.” Franczak says he didn’t quite believe him, and needed to sort through the emotions over losing his sight.
 “All these different people said that I’d stop feeling sorry for myself after a year or two. I decided I wouldn’t wait that long, so  after a year of feeling a little scared, I got through it.”
The county showed him how to use special technology, which PPL gladly supplied and sent him to New York for training.
“That worked out great. There was a little problem with the technology interfacing. We got through that. Every now and then, we have little glitches, but we get through those too.”
Everything he learned at the plant before he went blind still serves him. “I am a late stage blind person. Sometimes I kid the people here and say, ‘I remember more than you see.’”
Before he lost his sight, Franczak remembers observing “young people on a local campus with Seeing Eye Dogs, and those kids were amazing.” He firmly believes that companies are impressed how determined,  efficient and disciplined disabled workers are in doing their jobs. Of course, it always helps to have technology and a caring corporation at your back.
“Many things can be done with voice command or recognition. It can read the bar code and tell you what size socket it is. PPL is all up  to date with bar-code readers. If I had to work in the warehouse,  they’d have no problem with that. [PPL is] equipped to help another  blind or disabled person, veterans, all kinds of people. I thought no company would be able to do much for a blind person. It shows the responsibility that PPL has for its employees and it also shows the caliber of the people here.”

Life Back To Normal
Mark Lowinger, who works in customer care at Xcel Energy, is one of 11,500 employees. To many of his colleagues, he can seem just another  worker, even though he was in a car crash that resulted in the amputation of both legs and brain trauma. He walks with a limp, but few would know that he’s a double amputee.
“People at work cannot tell I’ve lost my legs because they look real. I walk with a small limp, so people ask, ‘Why are you limping?’ I  say, ‘I’ve lost my legs.’ They can’t believe it. They say, ‘I had no idea.’ My desire to walk again took me to where I am.” Lowinger’s life is back to normal. In fact, he lives a rather sunny life – literally.
“I‘ve been to Cancun four times in the last year and a half. We stay at the hotels and walk around. I don’t swim with my prosthetic legs. 
They cost upwards of $25,000, so I can’t risk leaving them poolside.  I play golf in Minnesota. I like to shoot basketball and grill.”
And Lowinger likes to help people.
“In my job right now, when I have a customer who’s happy with my service, it makes me happy I work for Xcel Energy. I had a customer  who had a complaint; I solved it myself, and the customer was very, very happy. This is what I want to continue to do with my life. I  always try to inform them and teach them. If you called me and had a question about your bill, I would inform you and teach you so that you wouldn’t have to call back again and again. I illuminate.  I cast light on subjects.”
Lowinger also casts light on the magnitude to which a person can rebound from a challenge.
“I’m a bilateral amputee. In my car accident, I lost both my legs below my knees, and I also had a traumatic brain injury with swelling. I [drive] my own car now. Walking was the first thing I had to accomplish. I have a very supportive family, and they backed me.  My family came to the hospital all the time, and my dog was there too. I was 25 years old. I thought, ‘I’m 25 and most people live to be 85.’ So I wanted to be my own person again. That began with walking, continued with driving again and going back to work.” Luckily, his search for work took him to Xcel, which operates in eight western and midwestern states.
“When I first went for my interview, Xcel was very open to helping me and to me. They made the interview as comfortable as possible for me  and I thought, ‘This is a good place and a good fit for me. This is a company I want to work for, and I’m not even hired yet.’ It was my first interview, and they were already concerned with my comfort if I were to work for them. They also talked about accommodations.”
Today, Lowinger solves problems for Xcel’s customers and in part, he credits his training for that skill.
“I studied business management and that gave me problem-solving abilities.”
Working for a utility sometimes has its challenges.
“Nobody ever really thinks of us until they have a problem. You don’t see electricity or gas.  You don’t think of us until something goes  wrong, such as an outage.”
In customer service, communicating with customers is paramount, Lowinger has learned.
“My challenge is, how can I inform a customer so that they get it?  What is their issue? I ask some questions to ascertain what their issue is. There’s a lot of listening and some guessing too. Any customer service background might get your foot in the door, but also learn about the gas and electricity business as well. Do something that makes you think outside the box.”

Employer Helps Him
Make transition Post-Accident
Kenneth Huffman, a distribution engineer with Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), learned about loyalty when he awoke in a  hospital bed.
“I started at PG&E as a utility worker, which is an entry-level lineman. I was working in the Bay area and am really not a city worker, so I took my first opportunity to transfer to hydroelectric as an apprentice. I loved it up there in one of the most beautiful areas of California. One night we went for a swim. I dove into a pool and broke my neck. I awoke in the hospital, where they told me I had broken my C1, C4, C5, C6, and C7 vertebrae. I was in the hospital for six months; I couldn’t even scratch my nose. The doctors were telling me I was never going to get any better.
“It was just a rough time, but what really helped were my co-workers and my immediate supervisor coming in to see me. Even the senior vice president came in to see me and talked with my family too [and told us that the company] would be there for me. The level of care that  PG&E gave me after my accident really surprised me. I was blown away. “I decided I was going to come back to PG&E because of how they were 
treating me. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but I knew I would figure out a way to make it happen. I went through rehab, got 
out of the hospital, and six months later, I transitioned back into school. I ended up getting my engineering degree and except for one class, I had a 4.0 G.PA.”
Returning to school was scary for Huffman.
“The hardest times were the times of transition, from rehab to school and then back to work. I didn’t really know if I was going to be able  to make those transitions and if I was going to be successful.”
PG&E helped Huffman achieve those goals.
 “When I came back to work at PG&E, my supervisor helped a lot. He  said that first day, ‘Regardless of what happens here, whatever you need to be successful here, we’ll work it out between the two of us.’  He wanted to reassure me that he would be there for me, and he was  true to his word.
“My supervisor allows me a flexible schedule. If I have a doctor’s appointment, he gives me flexibility. If I’m running half an hour late, I don’t have to worry that I’m late.”
That PG&E already had a disability program was a boon to him. “They made sure my application got in front of the right people who were hiring. I interviewed with three different departments and was offered a job in all three.”
Today, Huffman solves problems for PG&E. “If there’s a capacity or reliability issue, I propose jobs or upgrades to the system. I them  put them together and manage them all the way through construction.”
 Huffman is one of 20,000 employees who serve 15 million people in Northern and Central California. It employs a diverse workforce, with technical skills and competencies.
Huffman advises that students should hone their people skills and comprehension of general concepts.
“It’s really important that you focus on broad concepts, and think about how you’re going to apply them. I went to Chico State University, and they really had a strong emphasis on team, as opposed to individual work. We had to learn a lot of communication skills.  Part of my job is communicating tech issues to non-tech personnel or customers, so working on communication skills is one of the most  valuable things you can do in college.”

 

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