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The changing face of the utility workforce

Dan Wilson's picture
Former Systems & Technology Manager Energy Central
  • Member since 2014
  • 205 items added with 39,433 views
  • Sep 30, 2010


The electric utility industry is in a period of dramatic transformation, and for its personnel, this means a thorny balance of more complex systems, an aging workforce and an aging infrastructure. The new knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) required are far different from those of even a decade ago.

More reliance on technology, as well as the convergence of communications, computing and energy systems, means a daunting new skills list is necessary for every utility’s workforce.

Last year, the U.S. Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative of the IEEE Power and Engineering Society issued an action plan entitled “Preparing the U.S. Foundation for Future Electric Energy Systems: A Strong Power and Energy Workforce”.

The plan noted that aging workforce trends are creating a shortage of experienced engineers in the field. “The departure of this engineering expertise is being met by hiring new engineers and by using supplementary methods, such as knowledge retention systems,” the report noted.

“The future engineering workforce will supplement traditional power system knowledge with new skills, such as in communication and information technologies. Traditional and new skills will be necessary to successfully deploy advanced technologies while maintaining the aging infrastructure.”

According to the collaborative, solving the aging and changing workforce issue begins in the schools. Its research indicates that approximately 45 percent of engineers in electric utilities will be eligible for retirement or could leave the industry for other reasons by 2014, while the need for new power engineers could grow two to three times in that same period in order to satisfy the needs of the entire economy.

At the same time, while enrollment by university students in power and energy engineering courses is increasing, the overall number of students interested in electrical engineering is declining. Add to that the statement made by the collaborative that “there are less than five very strong university power engineering programs in the U.S.,” and the conundrum facing utilities, even before new workforce hires walk in the door, becomes apparent.

In-house apprenticeships

For its part, the Toronto Hydro Electric System has taken the matter into its own hands, and launched its own in-house apprenticeship training program. The magnitude of its workforce challenge was delineated clearly in the company’s 2009 corporate responsibility report.

It noted: “Despite the challenges of the global recession, with the approval of the Ontario Energy Board, Toronto Hydro continued to add to its workforce in order to deliver on its goal of modernizing the utility and also to replace ‘baby boom’ generation employees, 600 of whom are expected to retire in the coming nine years. Over 40 percent of the potential retirements will occur in supervisory, engineering, skilled electrical trades and technical system planning positions.

“To fill this gap, approximately 115 new hires were made in 2009, and approximately 100 more new employees are expected to be recruited in 2010. Since 2003, approximately 120 trades workers have been hired and are part of a four- to five-year apprenticeship training program.”

Earlier this year, I spoke with Blair Peberdy, Toronto Hydro’s vice president of communications and public affairs, about the training program. “We have an interesting situation where we’re quadrupling the capital budget and the capital construction program, but we’ve got a workforce with an average age of close to 60 years old, and something close to 40 percent of the workforce will be retiring within the next six or seven years. So clearly, we have a workforce renewal issue,” he said.

“So about three years ago we again went forward as part of a rate application to the regulators and said, ‘Look, we’re facing this problem.’ We argued for an increase in head count, which many utilities going before regulators are loathe to do.

“But we said it’s critical for us to start to recruit younger employees specifically into the electrical trades, the skilled trades,” Peberdy said. “This is a four-and-a-half-year apprenticeship. We’ve got to have these younger employees on the job while these older workers are still here so that we can have a knowledge transfer and a safe transition from an aging workforce to a younger one.”

The Ontario Energy Board agreed with the utility’s approach, and Toronto Hydro set up its own trades training facility and gained certification as such from the Ontario government, likely the only utility in the province to have gained that certification, Peberdy noted. Recruitment is ongoing in many different areas of the utility.

Government support for retraining

Duke Energy, too, has requested and received financial assistance in retooling its employees’ KSAs. In early April, it was awarded $3.5 million by the U.S. Department of Energy for workforce development and training. As a result, the utility is currently developing training plans and programs to equip both its existing and new employees to support its grid modernization plans. Other utilities awarded training grants included:

  • Florida Power & Light, which received $5 million to work with local academic institutions in retraining the utility’s workforce in smart grid deployment.
  • Pepco Holdings, which received $4.4 million to train its workforce in smart grid equipment and to advise its customers about changes brought about by smart grid.
  • Mississippi Power Company, which received $2.6 million to train its workers in transmission line automation, substation management and new metering infrastructure.

As well, in late 2009, Duke Energy Carolinas announced plans for a corporate training and support center to be built near Kings Mountain, North Carolina. This generation support center, said Duke Energy Carolinas president Brett Carter at the time the announcement was made, “will be important as we continue preparing and training a skilled workforce to maintain system reliability.” Construction began this year on the complex.

The training and support center occupies a 30-acre site within the Cleveland County Business Park. When finished, it will be about 188,000 square feet in size, and will include training rooms, an auditorium and employee meeting rooms. It will serve as a multi-use support center for the company’s power plants in the Carolinas, and employees should start relocating to the facility in July of next year.

Maintaining development despite downturn

In its action plan, the Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative also offered other suggestions to utilities. First and foremost, it recommended maintaining development and hiring activities in spite of the economic downturn to avoid future power system reliability problems due to massive delayed retirements. While easier said than done, the Department of Energy’s recent grants, both to community colleges and universities, as well as to a handful of utilities, might make the job, for some, a little less difficult.

As well, the collaborative also advised that utilities can provide research support to undergraduate and graduate students by offering data, allowing testing of innovative ideas, enabling access to company engineers for information and guidance, and providing financial sponsorship through fellowships and research project support.

The collaborative also advised utilities to seek beneficial opportunities through cooperation with universities. “Talk with faculty about workforce needs and major business and technical challenges; listen to their education and research plans,” the plan noted “Find ways to work together.”

Across-the-board collaboration—among industry, government and educational institutions—is going to be essential, both in the short-term and in the long-term, to address workforce issues.

“In assuring future prosperity, there is work to be done by industry, government and educational institutions,” the plan concluded. “To build from a position of strength, action is required now. The choice is ours to make; the future is ours to lose.”

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