Solving workforce shortages across the energy industry

New technologies in the energy industry are producing an increasing number of jobs and employment opportunities, but they often require skills many prospective and current employees do not have. According to the federal government’s “Quadrennial Energy Review (QER),” companies “report that lack of candidate training, experience, or technical skills are major reasons why replacement personnel can be challenging to find—especially in electric power generation.”

The QER also notes that “the electricity system of the 21st century will require an adaptable and flexible workforce with additional areas of expertise and capabilities than the current workforce” [and] with knowledge of information technology, communications and other relevant topics.”

That gap between employer needs and workforce skills threatens companies’ current operations as well as their future capacity since a shortage of skilled workers means fewer candidates to move up the career ladder as middle and upper management baby boomers retire. Companies at all levels of the electric generation, transmission and distribution supply chain—from the engineering, procurement and construction firms serving the power generation industry to the utilities that power homes and businesses—are feeling these effects.

In response to expanding industry-wide workforce gaps, companies are becoming more creative in their approach to employee recruitment and training. Not only are they developing and testing on-the-job training, apprenticeship and internship programs, they are also experimenting with educational partnerships with local institutions. The efficacy of such programs to build a pipeline for future hiring depends heavily on the effectiveness of their implementation. Factors like program structure, instructor background and the way educational institutions handle the partnership all have a tremendous impact.

In addition, the constant pace of innovation makes it necessary for companies to review their training programs and potentially revamp them on an ongoing basis. That includes assessing the quality of work and the results their educational partners are producing. With this in mind, there are several things companies should consider.

Effective educational partners must have a deep understanding of the industry and individual businesses. The ability to offer degree and certificate programs is important, but they also need to have a strong and successful track record of contracting with companies to train workers for specific jobs. And having long-term relationships with those companies, as well as support from industry advisory committees, is a very good indication that they can develop programs that will make a real, tangible difference.

In our experience, the industry advisory committee model enables the sharing of information among peers, facilitates the identification of industry trends and emerging needs, and gives educators the tools they need to develop curricula that are on point. Continual communication between industry committees and the institution is essential to a program’s success.

Furthermore, the relationship between educators and the companies that are receiving the training must be treated like a consultant-client relationship. It starts with the institution learning the business and carefully listening to executives as they outline their challenges, but then continues with pinpointing other areas impacting workflow. For example, a conversation that begins with a focus on technical skills may lead to the realization that training in soft skills like communication and teamwork is also important.

A program our institution developed for a local utility is a good illustration of this collaborative approach. It trains prospective employees the company has already screened in the skills they need for entry level positions, such as installation and maintenance of primary and secondary phase conductors; troubleshooting distribution systems; and following government regulations and safety procedures. But it also includes training in effective communications as part of a team, and the college credits students earn can be applied toward a full associate degree should they wish to pursue additional educational opportunities.

These so-called soft skills—the ability to communicate and interact effectively with customers, coworkers, municipal workers or outside contractors—are increasingly crucial in today’s workplace. Those who master these skills will be more valuable employees and will be in a better position to perform at higher levels.

Given the nature of the energy industry, training programs cannot be housed in classrooms alone. Education partners must also be able to provide state-of-the-art labs with the aim of replicating situations workers will routinely face on the job and also prepare them to deal with complex technical emergencies when required. One example of a training discipline that applies to many different industries—from energy, to advanced manufacturing, to petrochemical—is mechatronics, in which prospective employees learn to work with robots, programmable logic controllers and other automated equipment.

Whether training students to work at power plants or on power lines out in the community, in natural gas generation or in alternative energy, any training program should include the possibility of providing instruction at the employer’s workplace. Whether this takes the form of apprenticeships or simply on-site instruction, giving company supervisors the ability to participate and oversee students’ work can be extremely beneficial.

Finally, professional education cannot be a one-time thing. Workers and employers alike need to think in terms of career-long education and training. New technologies and societal changes are transforming every aspect of the energy industry. Educational partners must commit themselves to constant review and adjustment of their training programs—evaluating what’s working, what requires improvement and whether their efforts are producing the outcomes desired. And companies need to commit to accepting feedback as well as continually providing it themselves.

In short, lack of skilled workers can stall a company in its tracks. But with effective partners and well-conceived educational programs, companies can address that challenge and ultimately produce the workers they need both now and for many years to come.

About the author: Theresa Bryant has more than 30 years of experience in both workforce development and continuing education at institutions of higher education. She currently serves as vice president for Workforce Development at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, PA. 

 

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