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The Future of the Utilities Workforce: Building Capabilities in the Digital Era

Adrian McNulty's picture
VP Utility Solutions, IQGeo

Experienced Energy Industry professional with 25 years hands on experience from Generation to Distribution.

  • Member since 2022
  • 3 items added with 1,004 views
  • Mar 14, 2023

The utility industry is facing a major challenge as it navigates the constantly evolving landscape of the electric grid. Managing the transformation brought about by the increasing popularity of electric vehicles, the rise of remote and hybrid working, and the growing reliance on renewable energy sources has become central to the industry. Operators must adapt to these changes to effectively track and manage network assets and energy consumption patterns.

Grid modernization and technology optimization are crucial to tackling these challenges. However, the industry has struggled with a complex IT landscape that silos information and applications. This has created difficulties in increasing operational efficiency and transforming the grid. To address this issue, utility operators need to focus on implementing modern technology that integrates all information into a shared view that can be accessed throughout the network lifecycle.

To make matters more challenging, the industry is also experiencing a workforce crisis. As older workers retire, recruiting the next generation of engineers to replace them is becoming increasingly difficult. As a result, operators must not only modernize their technology but also adapt their workforce strategies to ensure a successful transformation of the electric grid.

The growing struggle to attract and retain talent

The utility sector heavily relies on its workforce. Cutting-edge technology cannot be fully utilized without the proper personnel to use it. However, the industry is currently encountering significant hurdles when it comes to hiring and retaining qualified technical workers.

The existing workforce is aging and a large number of experienced workers are retiring, exacerbated by the impact of the recent pandemic. In tandem, recruiters are struggling to find individuals with specific skill sets to fill critical positions as job vacancies remain unfilled for extended periods of time

According to a global survey conducted by McKinsey, the tech sector is one of the industries facing the most significant challenges, with almost 90% of executives and managers reporting skill gaps in their organizations, or expecting them to arise within the next five years – reflecting the reality of the utilities sector.

Energy recruiters have also expressed concerns regarding the workforce, with 56% citing an aging demographic and insufficient recruitment and training as significant challenges. Although targeted training programs have been launched by many electric operators, greater attention is needed to address the quickly widening skills gap.

Unlocking the strengths of the digital native generations

Utility companies acknowledge the necessity of adopting the latest technology to keep up with modernization imperatives but many are still struggling to understand where to begin. Deloitte's report "Positioning utilities to win the battle for talent" highlights this, calling the industry out for its static image, slow adaptation and lack of innovation due to its reliance on legacy tools.

Fortunately, this situation presents an opportunity for operators to kill two birds with one stone: organizations can increase operational efficiency and also attract and retain technical workers by implementing modern technology. 

This can be approached by refraining from filling the skills gap left by retiring senior talent. Instead, operators can engage the competencies of the digital native Gen Z and Millennial generations, creating a new skill set that matches their existing talents. 

Digital maps are a good example of a tool that can be implemented. They help break down siloed technology and increase operational efficiency by allowing operators to share critical information across teams. Digital maps will also be more intuitive for generations who grew up with technology to use compared to traditional paper maps currently being used by field engineers. 

Involving existing employees in digital transformation

It's essential for businesses to incorporate the latest technology to attract and retain talent,  but it's equally important to consider existing employees during this transition. Digital transformation’s success relies on all team members buy-in, and employees must feel like active contributors when implementing new technology. 

Employees should be involved throughout the entire technology development process to ensure assimilation. Operators can achieve this by taking existing employees' on-the-job experiences into account during the evaluation, selection, and implementation process.

Involving employees in the process increases job satisfaction and also supports longer-term retention. Employees feel a sense of pride and ownership over their contributions to the organization when they have a voice in the changes being made. This promotes continued valuable input for future improvements, ultimately leading to increased efficiency and effectiveness.

Forward-thinking companies are embracing digital transformation as they move away from manual processes towards a fully digital environment. This shift helps eliminate information silos, increase network data quality, as well as reduce workplace incidents and response times to network outages.

Overall, a fully digital environment makes employees' lives easier and more fulfilling. By involving them in the process of testing and implementing new technology, employees can witness positive change firsthand, which further promotes a virtuous feedback loop.

Framing modern technology adoption as a democratic process

Implementation of modern technology may cause existing employees, particularly those in older age groups, to view it as a threat to their jobs. It’s crucial for utility operators to reduce these concerns by communicating that the adoption of modern technology will benefit all workers and is not a means to replace old employees with new ones.

Operators can emphasize the added value that technology can bring to employees, regardless of their tenure. Operators can also highlight how the democratization of modern technology could provide workers with the tools needed to improve their performance and play a vital role in the transformation of the electric grid.

Engaging the workforce is vital for addressing the challenges being faced by the utility industry. To achieve this, operators can provide up-to-date technology that leverages the skill sets of Gen Z and Millennials, while also ensuring existing employees aren’t left behind. Their years of experience can be valuable in the implementation process.

Utility workers make our daily lives possible, and they will play a huge role in achieving net-zero decarbonization targets. Collaboration with the workforce and the deployment of the latest technology and processes are crucial in overcoming the challenges currently faced by the industry. 


Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Mar 17, 2023

This is an excellent article.  I have often written on the developing skills gap, and I am glad you share some of my views. One problem is the lack of social status being an "engineer" conveys now. Compared to say a "TikTok Influencer" (I'd say the former is a more stable career path than the latter). I think there needs to be an industry-wide campaign to make young people aware of the benefits: I'm absolutely sure there will be a utilities industry in 50 years, I'm not so sure about any particular niche in social media. 

Plus, of course, attracting older, retireds back to the industry is important: they may need the money, or often find retirement dull compared to the companionship and stimulus of the work environment.

Jack Saim's picture
Jack Saim on Mar 17, 2023

In a typical solar panel system, the solar panel captures sunlight and converts it into electrical energy in the form of direct current (DC). This energy is then sent to an inverter which converts the DC energy into alternating current (AC). The AC energy is then distributed throughout your home and is used to power your appliances and lights.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Mar 17, 2023

Great article, and thanks for sharing.  We have been talking about the aging workforce in the industry since the early 2000s.  In fact, the lead article in the launch of our EnergyBiz publication was on the aging workforce.  I think the recession of 2008 may have delayed this somewhat, but I agree it is here, and I think in the next few years, this will be one of the most talked about issues in the industry - that and the supply chain issues.  I look forward to reading more insights from you in the future. 

Love this quote

To make matters more challenging, the industry is also experiencing a workforce crisis. As older workers retire, recruiting the next generation of engineers to replace them is becoming increasingly difficult. As a result, operators must not only modernize their technology but also adapt their workforce strategies to ensure a successful transformation of the electric grid.

Adrian McNulty's picture
Thank Adrian for the Post!
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