Contractors, tech and education will bridge workforce gap

Katie  Hinton's picture
Business Analyst ARCOS

With a background in communications and public relations and leadership development, Katie brings more than 15 years of marketing/sales experience and 10 years of technical knowledge to the...

  • Member since 2018
  • 24 items added with 21,254 views
  • Jul 2, 2018

Like all skilled trades across the U.S., the electric industry is finding it hard to fill openings with qualified workers. The nature of the jobs for which utilities need workers is changing, too. While there’s clearly a need for O&M personnel and linemen, there’s also a need for newer roles such as data analysts and cybersecurity specialists. Utilities face a threefold challenge:

  • Recruiting for traditional roles, such as line workers, mechanics and pipefitters
  • Broadening the skill set of those traditional roles as evolving information and communication technology (ICT) affects the job site
  • Predicting the kind of workers needed as emerging and renewable technologies take hold

A recent study by West Monroe Partners (WMP) in Electric Light & Power’s online magazine says utility executives aren’t doing nearly enough to meet the shifts occurring in the workplace. For example, only 52 percent of energy and utility industry executives view their data as a strategic asset according to the WMP study. Dan Belmont, a senior consultant for WMP, writes that savvy executives will “swiftly and fully integrate tools, people, systems, information, and operational technology to align with serving the customer.”

According to the Center for Energy Workforce Development, the industry has made progress in recruiting new workers for traditional roles, especially with programs like the Troops to Energy Jobs Initiative. Emerging roles able to manage cyber-physical systems – such as smart grids, artificial intelligence and robotics – will require even more workers. In the meantime, retirements offset some of the hiring.

Solving a multi-pronged challenge requires multiple tactics

An immediate approach is turning to electric utility contractors to fill the gap while utilities ramp up recruitment and training. Contractors can react quickly to a utility’s needs with automated tools that help respond to outages and track requests for contract crews, allowing utilities to quickly restore service.

Another tactic is the increased use of technology. High-tech tools can boost workforce efficiency. For example, utilities can keep investing in smart meters to reduce the need for meter readers; smart grid components that isolate faults and reduce outages; resource management tools to swiftly and safely deploy assets; and aerial inspection technology to improve and expedite damage assessment.

While utilities turn to contractors and technology for help, the industry can also promote enrollment in apprenticeships and vocational schools. Many utilities run line worker schools and offer introductory programs. This takes several years, up to seven in some cases, to create a fully educated lineworker. So the industry also has to ramp up publicizing the benefits of a utility industry career.

There’s a page we can tear from the IT world’s playbook that will help our cause. About 20 years ago, Cisco saw it wasn’t enough to put its computer networks in place. Cisco’s customers would need network managers to keep the technology running. Enter Cisco engineer George Ward, who started what became the Cisco Networking Academy. The academy gave high schools the curriculum they would need to interest and educate high schoolers in designing and running Cisco networks. There’s no reason why utilities can’t do the same by reaching into their community’s schools and getting youth excited about the high-tech roles that await them in the energy industry. Like Cisco, utility companies can help create the curriculum schools use to teach middle- and high-school students about electricity, circuits, energy conservation and sustainability.

The utility industry’s work affects every person in our nation, every day. Let’s get busy educating America’s next generation of utility workers who will fill the gap and help us innovate.

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