Preventing Knowledge Loss As More Utility Workers Retire

By Wayne Bishop Jr., Doble Engineering Company


The United States is one of the most electrically dependent nations in the world. A loss or serious reduction of available electric power would make it extremely difficult-if not impossible-for U.S. infrastructure to function at an acceptable level. Today’s utilities struggle to keep the quantity and quality of electricity high, despite industry restructuring, aging infrastructure, and, now the latest challenge, a shrinking knowledge base within the industry. With the age of employees increasing, utilities are challenged to find new methods for transferring knowledge from a large number of experienced personnel to a more limited group of younger replacements.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, electric power industry workers are already older than the national average (the average utility employee is 43.7 years old), and the median age will continue to increase over the next 25 years. For utilities as a whole, more than 148,000 employees fall in the 55-to-64-year-old range, with another 26,000 employees over age 65. Even more significantly, approximately half of the “Baby Boomer” group will reach retirement age in the next five years. A recent study published by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) showed that 61 percent of line superintendents are age 50 or older.

The imminent loss of such a large number of highly skilled utility professionals, whose considerable training and expertise is extremely valuable to both utility performance and safety, represents a growing dilemma within the power industry. It is imperative utilities focus on their plan over the next 5 to 10 years to minimize the loss of critical knowledge and skills. To implement a solution, it is necessary to determine what types of knowledge utilities are at the highest risk of losing, and develop methods to transfer that knowledge to the next generation of utility professionals.

For utilities to operate safely, reliably and cost-effectively, it is necessary that high-level electric power personnel possess and maintain the essential knowledge, skills and attitudes to do their jobs correctly. Traditional utility training programs address the “explicit knowledge” contained in written documents, technology manuals, and utility policies and procedures. But, it is the “tacit knowledge” held in a worker’s mind that is harder to capture and transfer to new employees. In the past, new workers would acquire this knowledge over time by working with those expert personnel who already possess it. With more expert personnel reaching retirement age, it is becoming ever more critical to capture and transfer the unique and specialized knowledge enabling these expert senior utility workers to perform tasks more effectively and efficiently than other employees.

By investing more in younger workers and setting long-term goals for increasing their skills and knowledge, utilities can ensure their level of operation will remain consistent over the next 15 to 20 years. The following strategies can help utility companies manage an aging workforce and successfully transfer tacit knowledge to younger workers.

Open the Lines of Communication

Individually transferring “tacit knowledge” from experienced to less-experienced workers can be a challenge because of the potential for a loss of quality in the knowledge being transferred. To make sure the shared information is usable, employee skill sharing should be strengthened through the use of guidelines, job aids, individual employee development plans and structured on-the-job training. It is also beneficial to set up group activities that encourage the discussion of problem-solving techniques and best practices for running the utility.

Invest in Technology

Utility companies should examine new technologies that can ease the burden on utility workers. Most utilities now use centralized automation technology, incorporating high-speed computers, supervisory control systems, and a variety of communication systems to ensure the reliable and safe delivery of power to consumers. As the available technology in the industry evolves, utilities should broaden their use of maintenance, testing and continuous monitoring system technology to supplement the loss of retiring maintenance engineers.

Build Relationships with Other Utilities

One of the best ways to maintain a high level of operability and power delivery is to learn from other utilities. Companies should consider increasing their involvement in industry organizations such as CIGRE, The National Association of Power Engineers (NAPE), The American Public Power Association (APPA) or the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE). Utilities should continue their work with their state and network organizations to increase the communication with other local utilities. By strengthening these relationships, utilities can help each other and learn ways to deal with knowledge loss.

Continuing Education Programs

All working engineers should be encouraged to enroll in continuing education programs to expand their electric power industry knowledge. Many organizations hold conferences and seminars that offer continuing education credits (CEUs) to attendees. Regular attendance at industry technical events that offer CEUs will help educate younger utility workers and give them a chance to meet others in the industry, learn best practices, and test unfamiliar techniques.

Create a 10-year Employment Plan

Utilities should create staffing and workforce plans that provide standardized processes for dealing with the increasing number of utility professionals reaching retirement age. The strategies should identify planned retirements and vacant positions, as well as the replacement staff needed to support operation of the utility over the next 10 years. By creating a 10-year plan, utilities can ensure that successors are recruited early enough to allow an employment overlap between senior utility professionals and new or recently hired employees. The idea is to provide enough time to transfer the knowledge needed for a given position. The emphasis here is to create a plan that fits your utilities’ unique needs. There is no single, general solution.

Develop Partnerships with Universities

By reaching out to colleges and universities, utilities have a means for finding future technical resources and engineers. Utilities can position themselves as an attractive employer to young engineers by establishing relationships with educational institutions that provide talented graduates. There is also the opportunity to provide valuable work experience to students by offering internships and work-study programs through local universities.

Expert utility workers are an extremely valuable asset in maintaining reliable and safe delivery of electric power to consumers. Dealing with the loss of critical knowledge over the next 10 to 15 years is one of the most significant challenges the power industry currently faces. Utilities must begin planning, testing and selecting the best practices to combat this growing problem. The strategies listed above are just some of the methods utilities should consider implementing into their organization. By opening the lines of communication, using new technologies, building relationships, and investing in education, utilities have a better chance of continuing to meet the high level of demand placed on the electric power industry.௣à¯£

Wayne Bishop Jr. has worked at Doble Engineering since 1993 in several job capacities including client contracts manager, client service marketing manager and presently oversees the Doble Services Program as product manager. Wayne graduated from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., earning a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 1992. He is also a graduate of Harvard University where he completed the graduate management program. Doble Engineering has been supplying diagnostic instruments and engineering services to the electric power industry for decades. For more information, visit the company’s web site at www.doble.com.

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