December 2016, Vol. 243, No. 12


Young LDC Manager Sees Millennials as an Answer, Not a Threat

By Michael Reed, Managing Editor

Bradley Walters, gas distribution manager for the city of Rocky Mount, NC, sees the public utility’s gas services and infrastructure program from an especially fresh perspective. At 30 years old, what other choice would he have?

Already with the city nearly eight years, Walters, who cut his teeth on the natural gas business as project gas system engineer up until his recent promotion, sees his environmentally conscious generation of millennials as a perfect fit for the industry. He sees his work in the natural gas industry not only as an opportunity to make a good living, but also as a way of contributing to the “greater good” by striving to reduce emissions.

Born and raised just outside of Rocky Mount, Walters obviously has deep roots with the community, city Director of Energy Resources Richard Worsinger told P&GJ, describing Walters as smart, energetic and a quick learner with excellent engineering skills.

“Although he had no natural gas background, this was actually a plus as it allowed us to train and develop him without the need to untrain any bad habits or misconceptions,” Worsinger explained.

In this interview, Walters, an engineer with a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina State University, addresses the need for universities and colleges to provide more energy-specific majors and for the industry to have a greater presence on campuses. Additionally, he discusses the challenges facing a city with 18,721 services and 543 miles of mains, when it comes to replacing infrastructure.

P&GJ: Can you give us an overview of the Rocky Mount replacement program as it pertains to gas service and infrastructure? How much infrastructure will be replaced and over what period of time?

Walters: Rocky Mount currently has over 540 miles of main and almost 19,000 services. [With 16,948 customers, the company ranks 131st among gas distribution companies, according to P&GJ’s annual 500 Report]. Roughly 20% of the total miles are steel pipeline, and only 1% of our services are made of steel. Even though we keep a close eye on our steel facilities and have found they are in great shape, we annually allocate a portion of our funds to replace steel mains.

We have our steel system prioritized based on age and inspection results, and we replace as much as we can with the allocated funds. At this point, it is not our intention to be completely free of steel pipelines, but more importantly, to reduce maintenance costs of the system. When opportunities to replace mains present themselves through municipal or Department of Transportation DOT projects, we try to take advantage.

P&GJ: What sizes and type of pipe will be used? How many miles of cast-iron pipe is involved?

Walters: Fortunately, Rocky Mount completed its cast-iron pipe replacement program nearly a decade ago. In most cases, our steel replacement program focuses on 2-inch steel main in residential neighborhoods, so the majority of our replacement pipe is 2-inch polyethylene main with ¾-inch polyethylene services. Occasionally, there will be 4-, 6- or 8-inch steel main replaced, and we typically install the same size polyethylene pipe in its place.

P&GJ: From a purely logistical standpoint, what are the biggest hurdles to overcome in an ongoing infrastructure replacement project of this type?

Walters: Almost 60% of our steel mains are 2-inch in diameter and feed older neighborhoods within the system. As such, one of our biggest challenges is to ensure residential customers do not lose access to gas for long periods of time. Every effort is made to interrupt their services for just a few hours, and we plan this according to the current weather and time of day.

P&GJ: What technologies do you find most useful in your construction and pipe replacement program? Will any new technologies be used?

Walters: The majority of our main replacement involves the use of our boring rig, which has saved us time and money during replacement projects. We have also utilized a gas service insert tool to help locate older plastic services for replacement. Aside from mechanical equipment, our GIS mapping provides extraordinary benefits when planning and completing replacement projects.

P&GJ: What about your public awareness program concerning road and sidewalk closures, and service interruptions? What methods do you employ?

Walters: If a replacement project requires sidewalk and/or lane closures, we contact our engineering department – and NCDOT [North Carolina Department of Transportation] if it’s on a state maintained highway – to approve of our signage and warning markers.

When a replacement causes an interruption of service, we notify all affected customers one week prior by putting out door hangers stating we’ll be working in the area. This includes our contact information. We also require our crew personnel to attempt to contact the customer when they arrive onsite to begin work.

P&GJ: How much of the work will be done by contractors? How have your relationships with contractors changed over the years?

Walters: Approximately 75% of our replacement projects are completed using in-house personnel. Our contractors only get involved when larger diameter pipe is necessary or there is a tight window to have the services replaced. We have a very good relationship with our current contractor and have been pleased with the quality of their work.\

P&GJ: Do you foresee any difficulty in finding enough qualified people to do the work? Does Rocky Mount have project-related training programs?

Walters: I do have concerns that it will be hard to find qualified people when our more experienced personnel retire. When the opportunity presents itself, we try to cross-train our employees as much as possible in order to build experience across all positions.

We do have in-house training that involves all gas division personnel. Even if an individual isn’t expected to perform certain tasks, we want them to be knowledgeable about the process and get them involved as much as possible.

P&GJ: Have lower prices caused more heating customers to switch to natural gas in your service area?

Walters: When propane was significantly higher than natural gas a few years ago, we encountered a number of heating customers looking to switch. Since then, as the price of propane has come down, we’ve seen that number decrease noticeably. However, we still have a fair amount of customers switching for various reasons.

P&GJ: What led you to go into the energy business? Did you have a mentor or special influence along the way?

Walters: I wish I could say it was all part of the plan, but honestly, it was pure chance. A position was available and I decided to apply. I am thankful to those individuals that decided to give me this opportunity, as I had zero knowledge of the energy industry at the time.

Having very little practical knowledge of natural gas, I was fortunate to have a number of individuals, both at the City of Rocky Mount and in other municipally owned gas systems, to lean on for guidance and experience. This industry has a passionate and loyal workforce and those things rub off on you.

P&GJ: Leaders throughout the industry are concerned about its aging workforce and, in some cases, an inability to attract younger people to replace retiring employees. As a young person, do you have any thoughts on what could make energy a more attractive career choice for people your age and younger?

Walters: Yes, I’m 30. Our industry does have a difficult time attracting younger professionals, although I’ve seen it improve over the last five years in our area. Many individuals within the industry started in the field as a worker or field technician and worked their way up to management positions. The difficulty the younger generation faces is there are very few degree programs that cater to the natural gas industry specifically.

So, at least in our region, utility companies are having to attract individuals with various backgrounds that aren’t energy-related. Many of the engineers that are hired come from civil, mechanical or chemical backgrounds, and when they’re in school, they aren’t being steered toward the energy industry. The same can apply for those with marketing, business or accounting degrees. The industry needs to continue to increase its presence on college campuses and to develop internship programs to attract these young professionals.

Also, millennials in general are the most environmentally conscious generation and are more likely to take a job based on the value it provides, rather than the bottom line. Working in the energy industry provides that aspect of not only providing a good living, but doing so while contributing to the “greater good” by collectively striving to improve our environment by reducing emissions, efficiently using our natural resources, taking advantage of renewable resources, etc.

This is where I think the industry can really make a push toward the younger generation. Energy jobs are fairly stable, and due to increasing regulations, companies are looking to expand in some areas. Touting a good job while contributing to something bigger is important to spike interest in the younger generation.

P&GJ: What about your job, if anything, keeps you awake at night?

Walters: There are always things that stay in the back of your mind … leaks and damages that may cause unsafe conditions, training and continuity of your workforce, and the health and safety of our personnel and our citizens. I’m confident in our organization and our personnel to make the best decisions in all scenarios, but that doesn’t eliminate my concern for these things.


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