To safely speed up restoration, let’s tap technology to standardize how we share resources
- Jan 28, 2022 10:47 pm GMT
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Pew Research Center, 50.3 percent of U.S. adults 55 and over had retired from the workforce in November 2021. BLS data also shows that in 2021, the median age for utility industry workers was 44.4 years. By comparison, workers in the hospitality and retail industry have a median age of 31.7 and 37.7, respectively. The utility industry has a statistically older workforce and faces accelerating retirements by its most experienced workers.
Compounding these challenges are an uptick in the amount of work utilities face, plus evolving regulations (e.g., the PHMSA Mega Rule Part II) that pressure utility executives to restore services faster than ever. Utilities often use spreadsheets, whiteboards, and markers to display jobs, job types, and status. Completing more work in less time with fewer workers demands a better solution than the manual one in play at most utilities. Although utilities have work management and outage management systems, this kind of technology keeps an eye on work rather than whether work is getting done optimally. As work soars and utilities need a growing number of resources, manual processes can’t easily keep up and efficiently delegate tasks based on the operating company, job type, work orders, and status of crews.
Applying technology from other industries
The answer to better sharing resources lies, in part, with ridesharing and logistics companies that keep customers apprised of the minute-by-minute status and availability of drivers and deliveries. These companies are at the nexus of a marketplace. Utilities are in a comparable situation. A utility’s marketplace is marrying jobs with the industry’s pool of labor and equipment. Utilities rely on other utilities and contractors when work outstrips the number of workers. That mirrors the efficiency with which riders look for available drivers and manufacturers work through brokers to pinpoint shippers and pricing.
Figuring out how to best share resources is a hot topic for utilities. In a recent survey we conducted of nearly 200 utility managers, more than 85 percent said a simplified method of exchanging rosters would be a valuable addition to their software stack. Many of these managers use the manual processes described above to gain visibility into their crews’ work and build rosters of crews and equipment to share. What’s needed, say utility professionals, is a single roster. We analyzed roster templates from 30 utility companies as part of our research. One utility had 63 fields to fill out in its template; the utility with the simplest roster included just ten fields. And the average number of fields across all companies was approximately 31.
The picture grows more complicated when considering that 20 to 60 percent of a utility’s workforce consists of contractors. So, sharing resources isn’t simply a challenge between utilities; it’s a hurdle for utilities and contractors. The feedback we received from one of our surveys aimed at utility service providers, or contractors, showed that, on average, it takes five hours to create a roster for a utility asking for help. The bulk of that time is eaten up because the contractor is waiting for the utility from which it’s requesting resources to assess its needs and say that it can release crews. Bottom line: The level of technology a contractor and utility have for building and analyzing rosters dictates their speed of response.
Automating rosters and resource sharing
By launching an online portal, a West Coast utility we spoke with has simplified sharing resources between itself and the contractors who work for the company. Like other utilities we interviewed, this West Coast utility initially kept track of its contractors with spreadsheets and phone calls and emails to request help, confirm acceptances, and investigate discrepancies in work orders, time logs, and invoices. The process, say managers, was “a laborious and manual one.” The utility was looking for ways to root out the inconsistencies in tracking the activities of and communicating with contractor companies and crews. To standardize its internal crew-building processes, the West Coast company purchased crew-management software to see where, what, and how long its service and construction crews are working and create a digital snapshot of which crews and equipment are available minutes, hours, or even weeks in advance.
In 2019, the utility says it linked its resource portal to its crew-management system. Initially, contractors resisted using it. But as the utility’s managers helped contractors create their crews inside the portal, contractors saw how they could load standardized rosters and how the portal slashed administrative time and boosted accuracy. For its part, the utility’s administrators saw up to an 80 percent reduction in the time required to request and manage
contractor crews and rosters.
“Once utility managers and contractors learned how to use the portal, it’s been one of the most valuable tools we have for efficiency and standardization,” said a software team lead for the utility.
Simplifying rosters slashes the time to enter data and speeds up response. As part of simplifying the process of sharing resources, utilities should also consider mapping their roster templates with one another. By doing that, when one utility requests resources from another, a single system could analyze the templates and transfer the relevant data for each utility. The system could even alert a utility to a roster field that is missing data and request input from the owner. A program like this would tackle the supply-demand curve for utility work and fill gaps to provide data about crews as managers need the information.
Ultimately, utilities could see a nationwide picture of the resources that contractors and other utilities possess. Layered over this view could be the location and type of event causing a service interruption. Along with that information would be rates for crews and equipment. With a system like this, utility managers would know where all crews are, their availability, the cost of acquiring them, and how long crews need to get to where the trouble is. Other industries have proven that technology exists to better predict future events, scale up to meet those events, and create a transparent marketplace. Suppose the utility industry adopts this kind of technology. In that case, utility companies could limit the disruption of rogue players and work toward the greater cause of keeping the lights on at everyone’s accepted rate. Technology is there; what’s left is agreement and participation. END
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