ComEd supplies not only electric power for northern Illinois, but also opportunities.
Developing the area’s workforce is a prime goal of the company’s philanthropic spending, said Evelyn Rodriguez, senior manager for corporate relations for ComEd.
ComEd corporate giving has been focused on four topics: ensuring clean air and water, environmental stewardship, and fighting climate change; building equal access to arts and culture; supporting chambers of commerce and economic development organizations; and building the future workforce.
This last focus has been a large part of her work in the two years since she joined the company, Rodriguez said. “Since I joined the company, we’ve been working very diligently on supporting ComEd’s educational programs to build a workforce that’s representative of the communities we serve.”
For example, she said, the utility launched its ComEd scholars program in partnership with the University of Illinois Chicago and Illinois Institute of Technology, and with DePaul University and DePaul College Prep.
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“This program is dedicated to sparking that interest and encouraging students to pursue careers in the energy industry, specifically in the roles we have at ComEd in engineering and IT,” she said.
Students studying these specialties can receive help to bridge the funding gap between tuition costs and what they have in other grants, loans, and scholarships. The third cohort of ComEd scholars started their studies this year, she said. And this is homegrown talent, she added.
In combination with this, ComEd is working to build job opportunities for these students, ideally at ComEd or parent company Exelon, but certainly within the energy industry, she said. Aside from financial support, she said, ComEd also provides opportunities for students to connect with mentors in the company and with internships.
“The need is there in terms of what we’re seeing in terms of retirements,” Rodriguez said. “With these programs, our goal is to invest in the workforce of the future by building a pipeline that is representative of the communities we serve.”
The other part of the workforce where ComEd is making a concerted effort is in promoting skilled trades, she said. The company is excited about a program to launch next year that will encourage skilled work for students who are not on track to attend a university. Skilled trades also provide a path that can be transformative for students and their families, she added.
An example of where these people will be needed can be found all across the electric grid. Utilities used to send power only one way. But with the advent of smart meters, solar panels and small installations that sell power back to utilities, it is not only power but information flowing over power lines. All of this equipment has to be installed, serviced, and repaired.
Rodriguez knows Chicago well. She grew up in the Little Village area, earned a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee and a master’s degree from Northwestern University.
Before joining ComEd, she was senior advisor for neighborhood economic development and community engagement under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Volunteers are key
ComEd employee volunteerism is the bedrock of what the company is trying to do, Rodriguez said. Although not a focus of company effort in the past, employee volunteers are now. This can take the form of encouraging people to take time from their workdays to contribute. Also, some of those volunteer hours can be converted to mini grants for an organization of the employee’s choice, she said.
The numbers tell the tale. In 2020, ComEd provided more than $8 million to organizations and communities within its service area. Except for a thumb of land pushing down to Kankakee, ComEd’s service territory stretches along Interstate 80 from the Iowa border to the Indian border and north to the Wisconsin border.
Included in the $8 million was $2 million to support organizations providing essential services during the pandemic. And during 2020, ComEd employees volunteered more than 11,000 hours and pledged about $1.2 million to organizations.
“2020 was an extraordinary year for everyone including our customers and our communities,” Rodriguez said.
ComEd joined two of the COVID response funds assembled by the United Way. Support went to hyperlocal organizations, emergency assistance, and food pantries, she said. Support for hyperlocal agencies is continuing, she added.
Where does Rodriguez see ComEd’s programs going? She talked of students now studying for degrees that could translate into energy industry jobs.
“In five years I’d like to engage the students in volunteer opportunities so they can change the communities they live in,” she said.