I wasn’t the only one who saw labor leader Jerry Butkiewicz resign and join the utilities giant Sempra and note with some intrigue that this was yet another community leader the company had brought aboard.

Not that long ago, Sempra lured Mitch Mitchell into its ranks. Mitchell was working as the vice president of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and there wasn’t a person in town who could put the city’s many issues and its politics into perspective the way Mitch could. He knew everything and everyone and now he’s working on managing SDG&E’s relationship with the outside world. The chamber was weak even with him and now it’s worthless.

Jerry Butkiewicz molding young minds.

Sempra lured — if only briefly — Lisa Briggs, who had been the CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. She was great with the taxpayers and always a ready fountain of facts and insights on city financial issues. She was to be a liaison between Sempra and the North County. It was a job few could have probably done better.

Not long after she moved to Sempra, the utility lost Briggs to Mayor Jerry Sanders’ staff.

But Sempra also got Mitchell’s old boss, Jessie Knight, to join. CEO Donald Felsinger told voiceofsandiego.org in February that he hired Knight “on a fairly tight leash.” Felsinger said Knight had one mission for the company:

I said I want some baseline data as to how we’re perceived today. And I want to see real things that we do to better communicate our story, to better work with the community with which we do business; work with people that are opposed to what we’re doing. … a primary objective of mine is to improve our image. I think it can be better. I know who the company is and what it stands for and I’m not satisfied.

Recently, Sempra hired Dan Dzwilewski, the former head of the FBI in San Diego, to help with security for the firm. Not too long ago, Rachel Laing, a great local writer and journalist who I’ve had the pleasure to work with only a little bit, went to work for SDG&E

And now, Butkiewicz.

I called Sempra the other day to ask whether Butkiewicz was yet another in this parade of local thinkers going to work to help us understand “who the company is and what it stands for.”

Pretty much.

Butkiewicz will manage Sempra’s workforce readiness program. It’s a good program, though it’s only getting its legs. Sempra ran a pilot version of the kind of thing Butkiewicz is going to try to build into a movement. It was a 10-person class of young students. It was five weeks long — an effort to give talented kids from underserved parts of the community a chance to find their way into some of the well-paying jobs that companies like Sempra and Nassco have available. The kind where you don’t need a bachelor’s degree but you also can’t just walk into.

Christy Heiser, a Sempra spokeswoman, told me that the program was “absolutely” something that Sempra was doing not for its business but for the community.

“There’s no guarantee that [the students] are coming our way,” Heiser said. She said Sempra had hired two of the 10 young people that had gone through the pilot program.

The effort, of course, is part of a push by many to reintroduce the idea that people can be successful without going to college. Some students should be shown the route to a good-paying job at a shipbuilder or in construction.

It’s a good effort that is meant to, among other things, as Heiser said, help the community, not the company’s shareholders.

This is not something to be embarrassed about. I asked Heiser if Butkiewicz and the other hires weren’t part of an overall effort, as Felsinger outlined, to improve Sempra’s standing in the community.

“I wouldn’t look at it from that side,” she said.

Heiser had a good point. If you are a smart, talented person in San Diego, where else are you going to go to make some money?

“There aren’t a lot of Fortune 500 companies here in San Diego. If people are looking at a large corporation to be employed at, the options are limited and we’re a great employer,” Heiser said.

As Felsinger said, Sempra has been on a path for a couple of years now to improve its image with the community. The company is coming to a crucial crossroads. Issues like how it handles global climate change, the Sunrise Powerlink and the South Bay power plant are all going to do a lot to affect the company’s credibility in the community.

Sempra might as well do all it can, and hire the best minds it can, to control as much as possible about the way it is seen.

It apparently, has already figured that out.


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