The Smart Grid Work Force Already Within

By William F. Ernzen, Accenture

As utilities add capital investment to ramp up their networks’ smart components, often they look to external contractors to augment their staff. Because the smart grid work is new, an additional set of resources is required to build these new components. This could be in the form of hiring new employees, but the timeline to add fully qualified field-workers requires a strategic investment of three to five years to complete training and apprenticeship. Retaining contractors might be an immediate solution, but it doesn’t solve this problem completely.

Contractors play a role, but they create business and HR challenges. These skills often walk out the door at the end of a contract. Contract field-workers realize their value and can choose to live in desirable, warmer or (perhaps storm-heavy) climates. Some northern U.S. utilities are then left without a steady supply of contract workers to take on these projects. It might be wiser for utilities to have teach existing workers these new technologies via the install process because new smart components such as communications hardware have different embedded technologies. 

Delivering new benefits

Often utilities experience productive field time within a four- to five-hour per day range, but the leading practice is between six to six-and-a-half hours a day. Increasing the productivity of existing crews by two hours a day across a work force of 1,000 field crews involved with capital projects could unlock about 25 percent more productive time. This compares to adding 250 new crews without increasing costs. With this boost in work force time, savings could be applied to performing more smart grid work—making the investment dollars go farther and freeing up the work force to deliver and learn about the new grid.

Driving this type of field productivity change involves taking a systematic look at how work is identified, designed, scheduled, executed and closed out. For example, adjusting the organization structure to create a dedicated group that ensures crews can execute fieldwork without obstacles; or doing targeted site delivery of materials to safe and secure locations might be ways to increase productive time.

Evaluating and simplifying this work process can streamline the overall work flow while removing obstacles to completing fieldwork, such as false starts. Another benefit is increased employee engagement. Most utility field-workers deliver quality work and are frustrated when they are blocked from doing their jobs.

Delivering productivity improvements of this type also carries strong relationship capital with regulators, who likely helped determine how much smart grid investment would be performed in the first place.

Change is good all round

Another key to implementing these types of programs is managing the change along with the employees. Including the impacted groups in revising the process is critical. Establishing dialogue between senior leaders and field employees that keeps field-workers updated on changes and the impacts helps workers accept and embrace those changes. Beyond helping managers discover the smart grid work force they didn’t know they had, these types of engagements can add value through improved customer experience, more efficient maintenance and inspection programs and improved asset data quality and governance.

Committing to action

Utilities face almost constant bombardment from factors that impact how they manage their resources. Those who identify ways to leverage their workforce to modernize the grid will catapult their people into the new world of smart technology while freeing up capital resources to take advantage of the next generation opportunities made available by the smart grid.

William Ernzen is an executive director and global lead for the work, field and resources management practice in Accenture Smart Grid Services. He has more than 16 years’ experience assisting gas, electric and water companies increase work force performance. Based in Detroit, he may be reached at william.f.ernzen@accenture.com.

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