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2022 Could Be the Year Utilities Scale Up Their Workforces (Without Necessarily Hiring More)

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Jennifer Berg's picture
Sr. Manger, Rugged Feld Service, Zebra Technologies
  • Member since 2021
  • 5 items added with 2,535 views
  • Jan 25, 2022

This item is part of the Power Industry 2022 Trends & Predictions - January 2022 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

It’s hard to predict what will unfold in the utility sector the next 12 months given the volatility of the labor market, energy demands and even resources. But I’m sure the maintenance and/or replacement of aging, overtaxed infrastructure will be a top priority – and not just because of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

We’ve experienced multiple 100-year events – wildfires, hurricanes and floods – in just a year’s time, all of which have been painful for utilities to manage, and the creation of new population epicenters doesn’t seem to be a “phase” that our country is going through. The great migration and city sprawl is real. With current infrastructure approaching – or perhaps already far past – a critical tipping point, utilities will have no choice but to finally rip and replace assets that are beyond repair and quickly scale systems to increase service capacity. Frequent outages are becoming more than inconvenient to citizens and businesses. In fact, some might compare current grid reliability challenges to supply chain challenges. Just one gap, weak point or failure can lead to rippling consequences both upstream and downstream. 

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That’s why I also expect we’ll see greater investments in workforce augmentation and automation technologies in 2022.

With utilities suffering some of the greatest labor losses in recent months, big moves must be made to close the workforce gap and keep up with modernization, expansion and greenfield projects. And though organizations are moving fast to recruit, retain and train employees, many could move faster if they applied the same “modernization and expansion” strategy to their workforce technology architectures.

The More You Know: IT’s Impact on OT

The nature of utility work demands speed and skill. It also requires real-time communication and collaboration. Front-line, plant and back-office teams must be able to share information and coordinate actions around the clock, whether focused on installing new equipment in response to growth surges or restoring service after an outage. Even a single information silo could be detrimental, as it could prevent decision-makers from making the right call – and that can impact service availability and reliability as well as worker and community safety.

Yet, the geographically dispersed nature of field service operations makes it difficult for decision-makers to know who’s where, doing what, and when. It also makes it hard for crews to be dispatched to the right place at the right time with the right equipment. Given how stretched field-based teams remain, everyone from utilities to contractors and energy producers wants to reduce the number of truck rolls it takes to complete a work order.

So, I expect we’ll see interest – and investments – increase in technologies that improve situational awareness, automate workforce and task management, and give prescriptive guidance to workers. I believe remote expert tools will also become commonplace rather than “innovative.”

Having direct access to physically distanced experts will be the only way that new workers can become productive on day one. And having unfettered access to critical information systems will be key to ensuring all utility workers are focused, efficient, and productive from the moment they clock in regardless of where they work on any given day.

Equipping field-based workers with secure rugged tablets they can take home each night means they will be able to quickly confirm where to go and what to do the next morning. If they need to go to the warehouse or central station to grab equipment or supplies, they will know so they can head straight there – versus finding out after they arrive at a job site and have to make a return trip across town. Dispatch, routing and status reports can also be automated throughout the day via GPS tracking and real-time data inputs. GIS access will help ensure crews aren’t spending hours, or even minutes, trying to hunt down the right line or transformer. And a quick barcode scan of the asset can help retrieve maintenance history and manuals so workers can instantly identify repetitive issues, immediately begin the diagnostic or repair process, or request the right parts for replacement. Similarly, a barcode scan correlated with a geolocation tag can help report the precise coordinates of a newly installed asset, which will be beneficial during future inspection, maintenance, diagnostic, repair or replacement actions.

Utilities that really want to see operational improvements will make the switch to rugged, enterprise-grade mobile computing technologies that offer reliable wireless connectivity and multiple data input options. This enables field crews to send real-time progress updates to operations management teams that can, in turn, relay accurate information to customers, government officials, media, and other stakeholders. These real-time communication and coordination capabilities will also make it easier to facilitate further actions with supply chain partners, contractors, and other field crews without requiring truck rolls every time.

Similarly, plant operators equipped with enterprise-grade mobile computing technologies can maintain 24/7 visibility into systems status and more effectively analyze generation and demand levels. Should adjustments need to be made to better balance the load during peak periods or scheduled maintenance, they can more easily coordinate with various team members. Should something unexpected arise, they can instantly review reports from anywhere, dispatch teams to investigate, or guide off-site teams through complex inspection, diagnostic and repair procedures as needed. And if all parties have reliable, enterprise-grade mobile devices in hand – meaning they can access information systems and collaborate via voice or video – then everyone will be on the same page, reviewing and reacting to the same information at the same time.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to collective knowledge and skillsets. When the lights go out, the last thing anyone wants is for utility workers to be left in the dark.

Of course, knowledge is power. The more information your utilities have about what’s happening with operational technology systems, the better they can manage their performance and preempt issues.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 25, 2022

Do you see the changing energy mix on the grid as a key part of this story? That is, something like ensuring highly skilled workers in the coal generation sector are able to find new homes in the cleaner energy sources replacing them? And what preparations should be done by those influencing the workforce to best prepare for that? 

Jennifer Berg's picture
Jennifer Berg on Feb 16, 2022

That’s a great question! I think this workforce migration is the precise reason why utilities, and companies supporting utilities, should be investing more in simple technology tools that deliver prescriptive task management guidance, remote expert access and collaborative capabilities more broadly. There are going to be a lot of new staff members stepping into these roles and expected to be productive on day one. If they are given a rugged tablet that’s loaded with software apps that will tell them exactly where to go, what to do when they are there, and how to complete each task – essentially a mobile, yet “on site”, trainer/teacher – then they will be able to learn on the job quite quickly and you won’t have to reallocate a more experienced team member to shadow every new hire for extended periods of time. You could, for example, have three newer team members working in the field with one experienced team member, and then a specialist “remote expert” help on standby via video or AR. It’s all about taking the base knowledge new workers have from other industries and showing them (quite literally) how to apply it to a new industry. Spelling things out on a tablet, such as what they should be checking, or what would indicate something was amiss and needs further diagnostics or repair, takes away the need for them to spend weeks in a classroom or shadowing someone else – or the need for there to be 1:1 pairings for every new hire.

Russ Hissom's picture
Russ Hissom on Feb 1, 2022

I like your points on the mobile tools. I work in the finance area and see some of the trends with mobile field tools making the overall work order accounting easier. A major bottleneck is in the flow of information from the field to the office, so any tools that help with materials management, GIS mapping, timekeeping, equipment usage, and as-builts will speed the cost side of the business and quicker inclusion in the ratemaking process.


Great article, thanks!




Jennifer Berg's picture
Jennifer Berg on Feb 16, 2022

Thank you Russ! A lot of industries are utilizing technology to help them be more efficient and what you mentioned is a perfect example. Enabling the flow information between the field and the office streamlines work exponentially!

Jennifer Berg's picture
Thank Jennifer for the Post!
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