When Georgia Power told state utility regulators this summer that its Plant Vogtle nuclear reactor expansion project wouldn’t be completed until 2021 or 2022, five years behind schedule, it blamed the delay in part on an issue that has plagued utilities around the United States, public and private, for years: a shortage of skilled labor.
The manpower travails Georgia Power and its partners are experiencing with Vogtle, a project launched in 2011 that would bring online the first new nuclear power plants in the United States in three decades, underscore two critical and longstanding challenges for utilities:
1. Attracting talent to work in the utility business when conditions are less than favorable for doing so. The talent shortage is real. Forty-six percent of U.S. employers report difficulty filling jobs, according to the ManpowerGroup 2018 Talent Shortage Survey. What’s more, in the utility industry specifically, according to the Department of Labor, as much as 50 percent of the nation’s utility workforce will retire in the next five to 10 years. About 64,000 utility employees may need to be replaced over the next five years due to retirement and attrition, according to the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD) 2017 Gaps in the Energy Workforce Pipeline Survey.
2. Getting their existing graying workforce to evolve and buy into the concept of a digitally driven enterprise, and in doing so, to use the digital tools to which they have access on the job, either to fulfill their current job description, or as part of a shift into a different position. One-third (33 percent) of the current utility workforce is over age 53, while only 19 percent is under age 32, according to CEWD. But how willing are the old dogs in the utility workforce to learn new tricks, and how good are utilities at enticing a largely analog generation to embrace digital?
While not new, the issue of trying to replenish and reskill an aging workforce on the fly amid a talent scarcity carries major strategic import for utility companies — so much so that the talent recruitment firm EASi terms it “the most significant challenge facing the [utility] industry today.”
To rise to that challenge and maintain a competitive edge in a fast-evolving business, utilities will need to learn some new tricks themselves. Here are a few to consider:
“- Automate and optimize processes and systems across the enterprise to operate more efficiently, decrease headcount requirements and free employees for higher-value pursuits. This process is well underway already, as utilities invest in digital tools that enable them to automate tasks once handled by humans, so they run leaner, with less reliance on people. Not only can this reduce workforce requirements, it also liberates members of the workforce from mundane decision-making tasks, so they can be deployed to more engaging high-value work inside the organization. During a time in which energy companies are hard-pressed to recruit and retain quality talent, this can make working for a power company more appealing.
There are multiple areas where digital solutions can help utilities automate and optimize. The process starts with a horizontally integrated digital infrastructure, one in which decisions in all areas of the business are informed by fresh streams of data from disparate sources across the enterprise. Such an infrastructure enables utilities to integrate IT and OT, and in the process to dismantle siloes and connect every aspect of the business, from pipes and wires to sales and customer service.
Today utilities are building out digital infrastructures with tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics that enable them to analyze, learn from and act upon data, and to do so faster and more cost-effectively. They’re also using Internet of Things assets — sensor-equipped generation, transmission, transportation infrastructure and equipment and even wearable technology — to feed data to those analytics, machine learning and AI tools. Besides boosting operational efficiency, a digital infrastructure with a strong HR component can help utilities capture and institutionalize the knowledge of skilled workers before they depart the workforce, an important consideration as new talent comes onboard.
“- Build an organization whose digital appeal helps to attract and retain talent. As focused as utility companies today are on the customer, they may overlook another key constituency: their own employees — and prospective employees. For utilities, employee-centricity can be as important as customer-centricity from a strategic standpoint. The move to an intelligent, digital enterprise is integral to providing the type of workplace experience that today’s talent expects and demands.
There’s a good reason so much top young talent is flocking to start-ups, tech companies and entrepreneurial ventures. It’s not just flexible work arrangements, in-house cafàƒ©s or Friday catered lunches. This is about companies and their HR departments devising an actual workforce strategy to make working in the utility industry appealing to the digital generation.
By advertising to potential hires the opportunity to apply the latest generation of digital tools as part of their day-to-day responsibilities, from wearable technology and drones out in the field, to artificial intelligence and digital twin at the generation and distribution levels, to ongoing development of the Smart Grid and virtual power plants, utilities position themselves to better compete for talent.
The exciting new business models that utilities are exploring are also proving to be a magnet for talent. The chance to apply their skills to a utility’s renewable energy venture, or a new electric vehicle charging infrastructure partnership, could appeal to today’s entrepreneurially inclined talent more than traditional types of utility jobs.
“- Invest in internal programs that give existing employees appealing opportunities to reskill and redeploy. For utility companies to stay competitive, attracting and hiring quality talent is only part of the solution. They also need to explore new ways to maximize the talent they already have at hand. It’s not too late to teach old dogs new tricks, and by focusing on reskilling workers whose jobs otherwise might disappear as a result of automation, utilities give themselves an internal talent resource as an alternative, or a complement, to their hiring efforts. Getting employee buy-in for reskilling is no easy task, of course. For these programs to succeed, it’s important that utilities find champions for reskilling within their ranks — employees whose willingness to embrace the digital enterprise and all the tools that come with it motivates their peers to engage as well. Building tangible incentives into the effort likely will help, too.
These are the kinds of steps utilities need to consider taking if they want to build a workforce that will keep them competitive and help them avoid expensive manpower shortages like the one Georgia Power faces today.
About the author: James McClelland is senior global marketing director of SAP’s energy & utility industry vertical. He’s based in Plano, Texas.