Communication Technology, Executive Insight

The right workforce is key to utilities becoming a “platform player”

By Michael (Casey) A. Herman and Karen Brennan-Holton, Contributors

Like companies in many other industries, utilities are awash in data. Thanks to the rapid growth of sensors, connected devices and other emerging technologies, it’s never been easier to connect with customers, track key assets, monitor supply chains and keep tabs on operations.

Yet, when it comes to assembling the workforce needed to navigate this new reality, many industry leaders know that they still have a long way to go. In fact, in a survey of more than 130 senior electric, gas and water professionals conducted by PwC, 64 percent said their workforces were only moderately or not at all prepared to adopt new technology. Less than 5 percent ranked themselves as “highly prepared.” These leaders are actively doing something about it. This includes retraining and recruiting employees as well as rethinking business models – all necessary strategies as the industry defines its own future.

But first…

Power companies and utilities have one important question they need to answer first: What will be the role of the utility in society, in our communities and in our marketplace going forward?  To be successful in the future, we believe, utilities must shift toward becoming what we’re calling “platform players,” a move that takes utilities beyond their current role as commodity and infrastructure providers into more of a connector or integrator at the heart of a decentralized, digitally driven energy ecosystem.

There are numerous ways to grow as a Utility Platform Player – from continuing to foster a new customer-centric mindset and becoming more digitally connected to enabling new entrants to join the energy ecosystem and linking customers to the “behind the meter” services and experiences they want, such as solar, electric vehicle charging and energy storage. Meanwhile, to seize a position squarely at the center of this evolving energy ecosystem, the workforce will need to be as varied and skilled as the evolving industry itself.

Evolving workforce needs

As those in the industry are seeing firsthand, a rapid workforce change is already underway.   According to our PwC survey, 25 percent of power and utility leaders feel that they currently have employees with the right digital acumen to lead the future of their organization. For most, however, this is still a work in progress. More than two-thirds (nearly 70 percent) say they’re actively recruiting new digitally capable workers and retraining existing ones or have a plan to do so. When it comes to the most coveted skills, there is one clear winner. Data science and analytics rise to the top as the skills utilities are most hoping to grow within their organization.   

As for assembling the digitally capable workforce needed to move the industry forward, we see three common paths:

  • Digitally “upskilling” existing employees
  • Attracting “digital natives”
  • Developing a partnership strategy

Digitally “upskilling” existing employees

Much has been made of the shortage of data scientists nationwide. But it’s important to differentiate between a data scientist / analyst who may have an advanced degree or other specialized training and a businessperson with analytics skills. The latter may already be in your organization, poised to be trained to understand and to make data-driven strategic decisions.

For many companies, developing the people you already employ may be a more feasible way forward, or a key component of a broader strategy. An assessment of your current workforce’s strengths and opportunities will identify talent gaps. From there, you can design a comprehensive program that goes beyond simply filling the gaps – to actually creating a future of your own design.

It’s an approach we’re taking at PwC. We’re building the “digital fitness” of all of our people by equipping them with a broad base of knowledge across a variety of desired and critical skills, such as data, analytics, AI, automation, blockchain, and design thinking.

For utilities, moving the industry forward requires placing the right bets and making the right investments. In this case, it’s betting on and investing in your own people who have the desire and wherewithal to transform.

Attracting “digital natives”

As utilities seek new employees, they face enormous competition from numerous other industries, all trying to entice the same people. In this group are the first “digital natives,” millennials or even younger recruits who came of age immersed in technologies previous generations had to learn, such as the internet, smartphones and e-commerce.

When it comes to finding fulfilling employment, the most promising talent and technologically endowed enjoy a wealth of attractive options. Compared with a Silicon Valley start-up or even a large multinational, utilities are not typically viewed as cutting edge or “cool.” What’s even more challenging for utilities is that this perception issue is often grounded in a healthy dose of reality.

PwC survey respondents admit that utilities have a reputation for being “stodgy and not cutting edge” (29 percent). They say their greatest difficulty in this category is competing with digital enterprises and startups (20 percent). Because the industry faces tough competition for digital talent from others with more perceived glamour and cachet, competitive recruiting strategies are essential.  

Changing the message

An industry charged with the vital, if conventional, mission of ensuring the safe, uninterrupted flow of electricity will tend to lean conservative in its culture. For regulated utilities, advances in technology and innovation must occur within a regulatory structure, something that can be a roadblock in recruiting the most ambitious new talent.

Even so, utilities exhibit many of the qualities millennials or other sought-after employees often seek in the workplace, including:

  • Investing in wind, solar and other “green” technologies, such as electric vehicles
  • Empowering consumers to make their own choices about energy consumption
  • Offering a flexible work environment that fosters work-life integration
  • Demonstrating a commitment to the community through service projects and charity work

Power companies and utilities should promote these positive values to sought-after recruits. Also, companies interested in attracting digitally savvy talent may need to contemplate a cultural shift. The move toward becoming a Utility Platform Player necessitates levels of innovation and flexibility (i.e. mobility, collaborative technology, etc.) that might have seemed unthinkable a few years ago – and, indeed, may still feel so today.

Developing a partnership strategy

Power companies and utilities recognize that they don’t always have the digital capabilities they need to come out on top in an era of shifting business models and consumer expectations. So, many look for ways to obtain those capabilities. Nearly two in three (65 percent) identified partnerships with technology firms as their preferred path forward. Meanwhile, most are not expecting to use mergers or acquisitions of emerging tech start-ups as a strategy for their growing technology needs. Utilities may be calculating that partnerships have a good chance to provide them access to talent and technology they wouldn’t otherwise have, without the burden of committing capital, competing for talent or convincing skeptical stakeholders of a transaction’s worth.

Final thoughts

Power and utility companies are poised to become an even more vital platform player in the energy ecosystem of tomorrow. We believe your workforce holds the key to making it happen. There are many paths forward, but at the core is the ongoing need to get the right people, with the right skills and experience, to succeed in this ever-changing world. We invite you to read more peer perspectives on this topic.


A person wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera

Description automatically generated

Casey is an Assurance Partner and U.S. Leader for PwC’s Power and Utilities Sector. He has over 30 years of industry experience serving power and utility companies in a variety of capacities. He has extensive experience providing testimony in various regulatory jurisdictions on a variety of accounting, rate making and affiliate transaction issues. Casey is a member of Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Wall Street Advisory Group and Electric Power Research Institute’s (EPRI) Advisory Council. Casey is a frequent speaker at industry events for organizations such as EEI, American Gas Association, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners as well as the Staffs of the Financial Accounting Standards Board, International Accounting Standards Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Casey graduated from Tulane University with a Bachelor of Science in Management and an emphasis in accounting and economics.


A person smiling for the camera

Description automatically generated

Karen has over 20 years of utilities industry operations knowledge and experience. She has led, managed and executed business transformation across process, people and technology and led customer care, HR, payroll and Workforce transformation programs at North American Utilities. She has worked at a number of North American utilities. For the past twenty years her focus has been in Change Management, Customer Care, Workforce Management, HR and Talent Management. She has worked with clients to define organizational changes and define processes to support more efficient business operations.  She has supported large scale transformation efforts focusing on the impacts to the people and end uses involved.