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Women make work a better place, says BPA exec

Claudia Andrews was named chief operating officer of the Bonneville Power Administration in February


by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: BONNEVILLE POWER ADMINISTRATION - Claudia Andrews is BPA's Chief Operating Officer.As a baby boomer growing up in the Gresham suburbs, Claudia Andrews had little exposure to women with professional careers. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, as were the mothers of her friends and everybody she knew. The two respectable professions open to women were nursing and teaching.

Neither appealed to Andrews, who had a strong interest in learning, trying new things and challenging herself. She certainly did not want to wind up being the archetype of a spinster schoolteacher.

Andrews, now 57, never guessed she’d become one of the Bonneville Power Administration’s top executives.

Marketing power from 31 hydroelectric facilities along the Columbia River and 15,000 miles of transmission lines, the federal agency supplies the Northwest with one-third of its electric power.

Named the BPA’s chief operating officer in February this year, Andrews oversees those services and $3.5 billion in annual revenue the agency brings in when consumers pay their utility bills.

The Damascus resident is also responsible for 4,000-some employees who work for Bonneville, the BPA’s Fish and Wildlife program, and managing its $14 billion debt portfolio, much of which it acquired when the BPA backed the development of three nuclear plants in the 1980s, two of which never went online.

Andrews debunks the myth that women are reluctant to join an industry based in math and science. “Taking the challenge is difficult for women,” she said, “but I think we are seeing women more and more who take that challenge and really excel at it.”

That wasn’t the case in 1937, when Congress formed the BPA following construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. As the country prepared for World War II, the dams provided cheap power that the BPA sold to steel yards and aluminum companies to build the ships and planes that helped win the war. Afterward, soldiers returned home, families grew and rural towns had electricity.

Many veterans educated on the G.I. Bill became engineers and came to work for Bonneville.

Old photographs in the lobby highlight an industry long dominated by men.

“I know a lot of women who were secretaries and clerks,” Andrews said, “but I don’t think it was until the 1960s when women started moving into management ranks, and taking on more technical responsibilities.”

Attracting women to the trade

Only one woman in the BPA’s history has ever sat in the federal agency’s highest executive position. That was Judy Johansson, who served as administrator from 1998 to 2000.

But Andrews said Bonneville has been on the “cutting edge” of getting women in management positions. Ever since she was hired in the 1990s, women have worked in executive positions, she said.

“We have kind of bucked that trend,” Andrews said. Over the past few decades, the BPA’s chief operating officers have been mostly women.

Meanwhile, at lunchtime, Andrews will speak at a meeting for utility workers where the attendance likely will be 95 to 100 percent men. “The utility industry is very, very male focused,” Andrews said.

Field positions such as electricians, linemen, tower climbers and other craft or manual labor-type work are very difficult to attract women to, Andrews said.

But the BPA is working to buck that trend too.

May 8-10, Andrews plans to attend the Women in Trades Career Fair.

Held at NECA-International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Electrical Training Center at 16021 N.E. Airport Way, the annual event aims to increase the number of women working in the trades.

Bonneville is one of many industries, ranging from Portland General Electric to the Plumbing & Mechanical Contractors Association, to sponsor the three-day event.

Middle school and high school girls and women will have the chance to rise into the air from bucket trucks and operate backhoes, among other hands-on activities to introduce them to the trades.

“We are trying to attract girls who may not be quite college material and/or may not know exactly what they want to do,” Andrews said. “We want them to consider that these can be very, very rewarding positions.”

From waiting tables to Washington, D.C.

Andrews earned her undergraduate degree in biology and French from a private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minn. With little idea as to how she might turn that into a career, she drifted around after college, waiting tables, doing other things and working at swimming pools.

She decided to up her skills and earned a master’s in business administration from the Atkinson Graduate School of Management at Willamette University in Salem. The program, Andrews said, gave her more focus and guided her interest in finance, where she spent most of her career at Bonneville.

Before joining the BPA (Andrews had an uncle who worked for the agency), Andrews took an internship with a prominent program working for the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.

Working there helped her get experience and a foot in the door working for a federal agency.

Family values in high places

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry brings a different perspective into the work environment, Andrews said.

“It brings the idea that family, personal time and work life balance is important,” she said. Not that men don’t bring that too, but the sense may be a little higher for women, she said.

For those who want to have a family, Andrews said Bonneville allows liberal (paid) maternity and paternity leave, as well as “fairly liberal” leave to take care of family members including yourself.

“I haven’t had to veil myself of this,” said Andrews, who with her husband raised a daughter, now 21, while having maintained several positions at the BPA, from chief financial officer to treasurer to executive vice president.

In July 2013, Andrews was named the BPA’s acting chief operating officer. In February she became chief operating officer, putting her third in the chain of command under Administrator Elliot Mainzer and Deputy Administrator Greg Delwiche.

“If I needed to take time off, I’d need to do that and come back to my job,” she said. The same mentality applies for her employees. “You have the tools available to manage a situation for yourself or with regard to caregiving. That’s pretty appealing to both men and women.”

Another trait women bring is compassion and exhibiting a value for people, she said.

While the BPA executive admits she can be as cold and distant as anyone, she said, “In general, having women in the workforce makes life a little bit more bearable for everyone.”

Evolving the industry

As for the most interesting aspect of her jobs, Andrews said it is the great challenge of evolving the utility industry to meet the growing need for renewable power generation.

“Energy efficiency is a big deal for Bonneville. Rather than building new coal or nuclear plants, we believe energy efficiency is the cheapest resource,” she said.

By providing energy saving incentives to customers, BPA saves megawatts and millions of dollars a year, Andrews said.

“I believe there is going to continue to be more incentives in setting very aggressive targets in renewable energy,” she said. “California is leading the country, but Oregon and Washington are not far behind. I think renewables will continue to grow in the Northwest.”




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