Flying cars, talking robots and self-tying shoes were once part of a “fantasy” future, or so we thought. Today, technological advances have encapsulated much of our imagination and have brought that one-time fantasy future into the present.
These advances, however, were not always welcomed. In the early 1900s, the mass introduction of automation and innovation created a shockwave of fear throughout our nation. The “robots are coming for our jobs” narrative was at an all-time high then, and arguably, is still alive today.
In fact, some economists believe that advancements in technological innovation could lead to the extinction of many human-operated jobs.
On the other hand, however, some may argue that the externalities of innovation are a driving force and necessary to the economy.
Which is why, many scholars, professionals, and workers believe that innovation is key to securing tomorrow’s economy and the well-being of the nation.
As these advances in technology have increased efficiency, they have even lowered energy costs. With the introduction of smart grid technologies along with wind, solar, and other grid diversification strategies, the electric utility sector has undoubtedly been embracing innovation. There is a bigger picture to this however, one that is not only affecting other professions, but the utilities as well.
It is no secret that the electric utility sector is facing rapid changes that present challenges to its current workforce. One of the major changes is the shift between the old and the new generation of utility workers. Traditionally, the utility sector carried a niche opportunity for a select group of individuals who were trained at vocational and technical institutes in skills related to electricity transmission and labor. The job carried a reputation of a gritty and intense nature that many would hail to be a far cry from any Silicon Valley or corporate make-up.
But today’s electric utility workforce is much more diverse and calls for more of an integrated approach. Just as much as past skills and vocations are still needed, there must also be a perfect blend of experienced, tech savvy workers to drive today’s grid into the future.
As a result, utilities have tapped into a much wider job market. The modern electric utility workforce consists not only of linemen and transmission technicians, but power engineers, data scientists, highly specialized mechanics, and other non-electric engineers. The future of the electric utility sector lies not only in the knowledge and experience of old, but in those that can maneuver around modern tech infrastructure now and into the future.
The external effect of this is not only a smarter, more efficient grid, but it has created a plethora of jobs and opportunities for individuals who are trained across a variety of fields.
One of the main challenges faced by the electric utility sector, nevertheless, is the aging workforce. According to a 2017 assessment by the U.S. Department of Energy, 25 percent of the electric utility workforce will be eligible to retire within 5 years. 
This means, within the next decade or so, the skills gap in the electric utility sector may widen and have an adverse effect on the already aging workforce.
So, the question becomes: What are utilities doing to preserve or pass along the experience of aging workers, while ushering in a new generation of tech savvy employees?
Traditionally, the answer to this has been a multi-pronged approach through the expansion of the educational portfolio.
Utilities have invested greatly in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs with the intention on training tomorrow’s leaders in innovation. Recently, Duke Energy, one of the largest utilities in the nation, awarded more than $600,000 in grants to more than 16 programs across South Carolina alone as part of their “K to Career” initiative focused on STEM skills. Recipients of the grants range from early education programs to universities that are geared towards preparing the next generation of employees to create and garner the skills necessary to use innovative technologies in the workforce.
Another approach has been through partnerships with higher education institutions whose staff provides specialized training geared towards a career in the electric utility sector. For example, Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) has partnered with the Indian River State College, Power Plant Technology Institute to prepare candidates for a career in the energy sector. The program addresses the growing need for engineers, technicians, and other workforce development related skills to train individuals in the latest energy technologies.
Utilities are also partnering with world-renowned research institutes and laboratories to recruit some of their top talent straight into the utility sector with hope that they can use their learned skills to drive innovation and aid with creating tomorrow’s grid.
While these approaches have been effective to some means, they have not fully addressed closing the skills gap or maintaining a new tech savvy workforce while also preserving the experience needed to operate the grid. The challenge with innovation here, is adaptation.
The grid of the future will require a much more advanced workforce than the current grid. This means that the utility sector must be able to attract and retain highly specialized and trained individuals to develop and maintain the grid. This ranges from issues pertaining to grid stabilization and cybersecurity to telecommunications and data analytics.
But even with an evolving grid, the need to preserve the experience and knowledge of the engineers and technician’s preparing for retirement is important.
To usher in the new wave of employees, yet preserve the experience of the aging workforce, many utilities have initiated transition plans that include knowledge management software which monitors the techniques developed and used by technicians and engineers over decades of work. This method has proven to be amongst the most effective in bridging the skills gap between the aging workforce and the new generation. The strategy is to implement real time training inclusive of those that are eligible to retire. By doing this, the new generation can learn techniques from skilled instructors and coworkers while incorporating their new approaches and processes.
Some utilities even operate full scaled in-house training forums. For instance, NextEra Energy created NextEra University, which coordinates and conducts training and niche skill development for its workforce. The extensive university program encompasses the major departments of NextEra’s business model: College of Customer Service, College of Information Management, College of Nuclear Power, College of Power Generation, College of Distribution and College of Transmission/ Substation.
While there’s no doubt that utilities have been plagued by the aging workforce dilemma, which is not an easy feat for any industry, the sector continues to progress towards a model that will not only create new jobs but lower energy costs for consumers and diversify their energy portfolios. Just recently, Minnesota-based Xcel Energy’s Colorado service territory announced its Colorado Energy Plan, which is poised to replace two coal powered generation facilities with utility scaled renewable generation. Consequently, Xcel will now open its operations to a wide variety of specialties like solar installation specialists, data scientists, and hundreds of jobs pertaining to solar distribution, all on a utility scale level.
Nevertheless, technological advances in the utility sector ultimately trigger a string of policy implications that were not necessarily at the forefront for utilities even a decade earlier. One example of this is cybersecurity concerns that the new modern grid must consider. That’s because smart technologies are exposed to a wider variety of security concerns than ever before, resulting in aggressive policies related to cybersecurity which are now playing a significant role in the utility sector unlike before.
Innovative utility strategies also implicate policies geared towards protecting the environment and lowering costs for consumers. These strategies include advanced pipeline, wind, and solar projects that are the foundation of some of the most progressive and consumer-friendly policies in place today.
As the industry continues to evolve and change and as older employees slowly start exiting the sector, the key to securing the future of our electric grid will simply be through innovation and preservation. As the nature of this new workforce evolves, so too should policies surrounding energy and how utilities operate.
Preserving the electric utility sector is not only vital to the economy, but to the affordability of energy for consumers. With the changes being implemented and education being incorporated into the very fabric of utility operations, the electric sector is poised to lead businesses, households and the economy into the future, and it all starts with workforce development.
About the author: Haldane Davies III is director of federal policy at HBW Resources. He manages and advises HBW’s many energy and transportation clients in a wide array of efforts and strategies, focusing primarily on legislative policy positions via federal and state outreach and coordination. Davies is an attorney whose background includes trade, tax law and financial services. He has a Bachelor of Law from the London Metropolitan University and a Juris Doctor degree from Syracuse University.