For the Smartest Grid, Invest in Utility Workforce

With so many recent headlines about robots replacing workers, what we are about to say might surprise you. The power industry, even as it builds out a smarter—and yes, more automated—grid, needs more people. We are aggressively searching for qualified experts to replace a mass exodus of baby boomers.

This includes technicians who can oversee equipment in substations and power plants. It includes engineers who can plan and design the power system of tomorrow. And it especially includes more lineworkers, men and women who become heroes each time they quickly repair damaged infrastructure. Nearly half of the workers who do this latter job are expected to retire over the next few years.

These constitute good-paying, career-launching jobs that Americans are pressing their elected leaders to create more of. You would think, then, that these jobs would get snapped up quickly.

Yet in many cases new job postings remain open for months, if not indefinitely. There is no lack of interest. Plenty of applications come through. What is lacking is the number of applicants possessing the requisite qualifications. A U.S. Department of Energy analysis found that seven in 10 power industry firms were struggling to find candidates with necessary education, skills, and experience.

When it comes to smart grid technology, the gap between what the industry has and needs is closing quickly. But the same cannot be said about its workforce. The workforce we need is not coming. It will take decisive action to fill the estimated 1.5 million new energy positions coming by 2030. Otherwise the skills gap will only grow wider.

This challenge is many years in the making. In the decades after World War II, electric utility network underwent an aggressive expansion. Then, uncertainty set in. Power markets were restructured, regulations increased, and electrical demand growth rates slowed down. These factors and more contributed to stagnating investments in grid infrastructure throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s.

But that’s not all. Investments also lagged in the labor force. In the 1990s, power industry employment decreased, and in the 2000s, as hiring leveled off, training programs diminished, as well. Many universities even closed their power engineering programs.

Partly as a result of this, the industry’s workforce development initiatives are now lagging precisely as a new era of power grid reinvestment requires something akin to a doubling down. Over the next 10 years, an estimated $757 billion — 268 percent more than was spent in the prior two decades — will be put towards grid infrastructure. We are not just talking about replacing aging assets, making an old system new. We are talking about making the 21st century grid a profoundly different machine than its predecessor. The shift towards renewable energy and the incorporation of digital technologies required to manage them are now working together to create a grid that is much more complex to manage and operate.

From a workforce perspective, this means that today’s power industry jobs are the same as the old ones in name only. The industry, in turn, is struggling to find workers with comparable skills to the men and women who need to be replaced — when, in reality, new workers will need to have an even higher level of technical know-how.

Today’s workers need to fully understand the structure of the existing grid, designed 50 to 80 years ago. But it’s not so they can manage this system; it’s so they can change it. Their task will be to apply their knowledge of smart technologies to guide the power industry into the future. This is why a background in information technology systems and digital infrastructure — skills that have not been prominently featured in technical training programs — are becoming essential.

The question is: How can industry help more Americans develop these skills?

First, utilities, technology providers, government, and universities must come together to make important investments in training. There are proven efforts to build on. Our organizations — one a utility, the other a technology provider — forged an ongoing partnership that has trained more than 2,000 engineers since 1970. Now is the right moment for industry-wide expansions of such efforts, as well as for industry-wide recognition that current training programs are in need of significant revision.

So, second, new and existing training programs must be focused not only where the industry is today, but where it will be 10 or 20 years from now. Our training program, for instance, has evolved to incorporate new distributed energy systems, smart grid technology, and solar generation.

Furthermore, it has never been more important to provide classroom and hands-on training. Per the latter goal, there are some great tools already available; the industry just has to take full advantage of them. Simulated computer programs, for example, can help students master software applications. Students also can learn how to use operating equipment in virtual settings that reduce the risk of injury or service disruptions.

Third, the power industry, and industry at large, should recognize that proactively developing workers is important not just to themselves, but to the country. Throughout the industrial world, more repetitive tasks —the jobs of the past — are indeed being automated. At the same time, opportunities are being created for workers possessing new skills.

Ultimately then, what could really benefit many job seekers, as much as more jobs to apply for, is training for jobs that already exist. The power grid is getting smarter. Yet it will never be smart enough to run without workers who can manage it.

About the authors: Kevin Yates is the President of Siemens Energy Management Division in North America.

William Winters is Chief Electrical Engineer at Con Edison. 

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