DWP Training Audit: Controller Admits Drop Outs and Poaching, but Ignores ‘Upside Down’ Pay Scale

EASTSIDER-Don’t misunderstand. I like Ron Galperin, and as both a lawyer and a budget guy, he is the real deal. Of course it is important to remember that auditors are numbers and data freaks, living in their own closed universe. On the plus side, their work product, within their “scope of work” parameters, will always add up. Which doesn’t mean the real world works like that. 

Case in point is the recent Audit by City Controller Galperin, which you can find here.  

The major finding of the audit, that made headlines in the LA Times, was the one about DWP training program has high costs and low graduation rates, audit finds. 

The other major finding tied in with this, was that many trainees leave the DWP after completing the program, lured by better deals from other Utilities. 

I have no doubt that the data supports these findings. What this actually means in the real world, however, is another thing entirely. I believe that the training costs are well spent to train employees in a very hazardous business -- the reliable delivery of power to us under any and all adverse circumstances. 

Training and the Power Employees 

Some 80% of the DWP training money goes to the Power System. That’s the folks who used to be called ‘linemen’ and are now called EDMT -- Line Worker, Cable Splicer -- the people who climb up to those humungous power lines stretching into three states (California, Utah, and Arizona), and the people who work the power generation plants, stations and substations, as well as on the telephone poles to our houses. 

This is seriously hazardous business, often performed 24/7 without respite, in the worst weather conditions. You and I can be without power for hours or days if these people do not perform their jobs efficiently. 

They are also being trained to perform their jobs in an era of rapid technological change, as we switch from traditional energy sources like coal and nuclear to wind and solar. 

The three major complaints in the Audit relate to the length of time that it takes to train these power system employees (up to 42 months), the dropout rate (about 67% for Line Worker/Cable Splicer), and the fact that a lot of successful employees are hired away from DWP by other Utilities such as Southern California Edison. 

The Safety Employee Analogy 

I use the comparison of training a power line worker to that of a police officer. Without stretching the comparison too much, in each case we have a system designed to take unskilled candidates, and through a rigorous, expensive and lengthy process, turn them into safe, skilled workers who can reliably function under sometimes dangerous or hazardous conditions, all while avoiding mistakes. In each of these systems, the goal is to perform under unpredictable conditions without errors that could result in injury or even death. Not to mention litigation. 

In the case of police officers, POST training is rigorous and expensive, just as apprenticeship training is rigorous and expensive tor the DWP. The goal is to wind up with highly trained employees who want to have a long, successful career, and to assure safety to these employees and to the public. 

Although it is rarely talked about, in each of these systems, one of the primary purposes of the training is to weed out potential employees who are unsuitable for a career in that field. We don’t want an employee who discovers that the job isn’t for him or her after completing the period of instruction. The potential risks are simply too high, and might not be exposed until the candidate is faced with a lot of pressure under really crummy, dangerous conditions. Thus the rigorous training. 

Please understand that I’m not making a case for equality of between police and Line Workers (sorry, IBEW) when it comes to their importance, their pay, or the two retirement systems. It is simply that long, expensive and rigorous training systems are critical for success in each field. 

Dropout Is Important 

Back when I was living in Lincoln Heights, I knew a number of young high school students who would not blink an eye at the thought of joining a gang, which always seemed to me to be a relatively hazardous life choice. But talk to those same young people about making a lot of money and have a good paying job climbing up one of those big power poles for DWP, and most of them would look at me like I was crazy and say, “No Way!” 

The point is that in any training program, you want to make sure that the candidate is a good fit for the job as early in the program as possible. While I did not see any statistics on point, dropouts are a normal part of doing business. The best programs will have the highest dropout rates early on -- before that huge amount of time and money is spent making candidates highly trained. 

In the case of DWP, with the high winds, rainstorms and crazy weather we have enjoyed over the last year, one major error can cause or extend a power outage to thousands of customers, not to mention cause injury or death. 

Wages and Benefits 

I know that all my friends on the DWP Committee will cringe at this one, but there is a certain poetic justice in the Audit Report. It (correctly) notes that DWP is being successfully poached by other utilities that grab successful employees who graduate from the apprenticeship program. 

Well, gee, that would have to do with wages and benefits, wouldn’t it? So it may be all well and good that, relative to certain benchmark positions, DWP employees are paid significantly more than other City employees. However, looking at the utility industry as a whole, that simply isn’t the case. Thus the poaching. I suspect that on the Power side, Galperin’s Audit Report is going to become Exhibit A in the ongoing negotiations between the IBEW and the DWP over a successor contract. 

Also, having opened that particular can of worms, someone is going to have to take a serious look at the Office of Public Accountability/Ratepayer Advocate’s (OPA) recent Joint Compensation Study, which you can find here 

Generally, the DWP Pension plan for newer employees (Tier 2) makes no sense as compared to mainstream defined benefit plans, such as CalPERS -- even as most public sector pension plans are the reason employees stay until retirement. 

Regarding administrative types, their IT infrastructure might as well be written in Cobol or RPG (and some probably is), and like most of the City, needs major upgrades and integration. So while the Auditor correctly wants better data, the existing system is not going to be of much use. 

The DWP employment pyramid is upside down compared to everyone else. That is, there are serious compression issues that literally create dis-incentives for mid-managers and up to hire on or stay. In plain English, for most employers, wages and benefits go up geometrically the higher up in the food chain you are. Witness the executives making hundreds of times what a base worker gets. In the DWP, it is almost the reverse. 

The Takaway 

Truth is, large municipalities are the training grounds for everyone in the State. In LA City and County, the LAPD and the Sheriff spend huge sums of money in providing POST training, and in the end many of those officers leave for other agencies that simply can’t afford to provide the training. They’re poached. 

Same deal for DWP and its apprenticeship program. If utilities like SCE can swoop in at the end and lure a trained DWP employee away with sugarplum dreams and bags of cash, they will do so. It’s an economic fact of life, and it’s cheaper for them. 

Such is the cost of doing business in the public sector. On the plus side, it is also a tribute to the quality and value of the training programs, and that’s a good thing for all of us. 

For a real solution, maybe, someday, the Mayor and the City Council will let the DWP have its very own satellite Personnel Division, and fix some of this goofy stuff. Maybe Controller Ron Galperin will even support such a concept.


(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.