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How to Help Ensure the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Helps Utility Workers

image credit: ©2022 Zebra Technologies, Inc.
Jennifer Berg's picture
Sr. Manger, Rugged Feld Service Zebra Technologies
  • Member since 2021
  • 5 items added with 1,752 views
  • May 25, 2022
  • 334 views

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) promises to give millions of Americans a path back into the workforce as well as job stability. But will it?

I think that depends on how well we equip unskilled or under-skilled job candidates to fill skilled roles and how well we equip today’s skilled workers to train and support new hires.

We must be able to transfer domain expertise outside of traditional education channels. We can’t make formal training or years of experience a prerequisite anymore, at least not in the utility sector.

The Department of Energy expects a quarter of the electric utility workforce to retire by 2023. Additionally, skilled workers in the construction and transportation sectors are quickly becoming scarce.

Unless we can recruit enough workers to backfill these roles and fill the new roles created through IIJA initiatives, it’s going to be difficult to get materials to job sites, much less install or repair the assets needed to expand and restore critical U.S. energy infrastructure. There is $1.2 trillion worth of projects slated under IIJA alone, with more than $62 billion allocated “for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to deliver a more equitable clean energy future.”

But how are energy sector workers supposed to support these new, large-scale initiatives on top of their routine inspection, maintenance and emergency response activities? It’s already a struggle to sustain normal operations. If we want IIJA infrastructure projects to be successful, then we must ensure workforce expansion efforts are successful and current workers are better supported.

Technology’s Growing Value as a Workforce Training and Augmentation Tool

We know technology is going to be foundational to all future energy systems, but what’s notable is how technology’s role in the generation and delivery of electric, gas, solar, wind, hydro and nuclear-powered services will expand beyond basic system command and control applications. Information technology (IT) modernization projects are becoming just as urgent as those focused on operational technology (OT) upgrades, mainly because people are the ones keeping “the lights on” across power generation and distribution sites and ensuring utility services are available to all citizens. You can plan for infrastructure overhauls and service expansions all day long. But if the workers charged with installing, monitoring, maintaining and refreshing assets are disconnected from systems and one another, it’s going to be difficult to sustain services, much less expand availability or add new capabilities.

That said, people need technology to be effective, especially today. Technology equates to worker autonomy, efficiency, accuracy, and capacity – assuming the right technology is powering workflows and information flows guiding worker actions.

How do you know what technology is right? That depends on your objective.

Putting Others’ Needs First

If you’re trying to fill open roles with candidates who may not have the required experience, then you need technology that can facilitate self-guided, independent on-the-job training. Just given the nature of utility work, it’s not going to be possible to pair an experienced employee with every new hire – and you need every new hire to be impactful on day one. Therefore, equipping them with mobile computers that can run step-by-step task guidance software or provide access to remote expert support will prove most beneficial. You could then staff each job site properly from a headcount perspective and “crowdsource” the experience and expertise as needed across your entire workforce.

A few specialists sitting back at headquarters – or at home – could be on standby to conduct a “site visit” via virtual reality technology or even a rugged tablet or wearable computer with a high-resolution camera and stable wireless connection. Those same devices could also be equipped with software that enables technicians to access GIS data, retrieve blueprints or asset records, manage work orders, and access manuals for installation or troubleshooting instructions.

Alternatively, if your objective is to improve warehouse inventory management or asset tracking, you may finally decide to power up an enterprise resource planning (ERP), warehouse management system (WMS) or other business system and sync it with front-line devices such as handheld mobile computers, wearables, rugged tablets, barcode scanners, RFID readers, autonomous mobile robots, or even printers. This would make it easier to manage warehouse operations and ensure parts and equipment availability for every project in flight. But “success” will only be achieved if you choose hardware and software platforms that can digitally capture, transmit or generate data in real time, in line with your high security standards and your workers’ preferences.

Remember, IIJA funding will make it possible to scale and strengthen U.S. infrastructure. However, we need enough people in place – in plants, warehouses and the field – to drive these projects forward and receive a return on IIJA investments. We know there is going to be a worker shortage. But that doesn’t mean there must be a skills shortage or capacity issue. Technology can be used to augment the workforce so that when there are gaps on paper from a staffing perspective, they aren’t apparent in everyday operations – or to customers relying on service stability.

Then again, maybe the worker shortage doesn’t have to be a reality. Maybe you’ll be able to meet your headcount goals if more people realize that you’re going to make it easy for them to be successful in these jobs, even if they don’t have prior experience in the utility sector.

Figuring Out “What’s Right” for You and Your Team

If you’re ready to kick off IIJA projects but feel that the workforce situation might lead to delays, let’s talk. Better yet, let me connect you with solution engineers who can show you how different IT hardware and software combinations can be used to effectively automate workflows, educate new hires, upskill existing workers or play the role of “intelligent project manager.”

They can show you ways that technology is successfully being used in the field and in utility-run warehouses around the world today so you can understand the best practices to emulate. Likewise, they can help draw parallels between your challenges and those faced by other warehouse operators, construction companies, field service providers and even retailers before showing you how these other parties have successfully overcome their roadblocks to meet shareholder and customer expectations.

Remember, digitizing data is one thing – and something that anyone can do quite easily these days. However, digitalizing workflows to facilitate the launch (and completion) of large scale, government-funded projects in a reasonable timeframe with limited labor resources requires some expert assistance. It can be complex, and it will demand your time and attention up front. But once you get the right foundational elements in place – technology tools that can make it easy to capture, understand and apply data – then some of these infrastructure modernization projects will start to operate on autopilot and workers will automatically feel relief from the new demands being placed on them by you and the American public to “build back better.”

If you’re looking for some guidance on where to start or you’ve run into some roadblocks along your digital transformation journey, let’s talk. You can reach me at Jennifer.berg@zebra.com or on LinkedIn.

Jennifer Berg's picture
Thank Jennifer for the Post!
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