BY ROD WALTON, SENIOR EDITOR
Utility workers like to party just like anyone else. Lately, though, it may be more retirement parties than anything else.
Many of the grid’s keepers are aging out and riding off into their sunset years at a higher pace than they can be replaced. Those who are staying must approach their jobs differently than they have in the past. This is no different than welders or oilfield workers and many other trades, but few of those fields are changing more dramatically than the nation’s electric transmission and distribution sector.
“The industry is going through a tremendous amount of transformation,” said Fidel Marquez, the chief governmental and community relations officer at Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) who started in the field as an engineer and has worked through four decades of change. “What you learn at school is one thing and how it works in the practical world is another.”
|Students celebrate Icebox Derby victory. They worked with ComEd engineers to build solar-powered cars out of old refrigerators. Courtesy of ComEd|
The nation’s utilities and their service firms are tasked with replacing and retraining much of their ranks right here, right now. You can’t get much more practical than that. More than a quarter of the workforce is 55 years or older, according to some reports, while the 20th century grid is transforming into a 21st-century marvel with more decentralization, two-way communications and analytics at the edge.
Factor in evolving future options such as artificial intelligence, robotics, augmented reality and predictive maintenance and it boggles the collective workforce mind. How do you develop all of them properly even as their duties and expectations change?
“There’s going to be a lot of jobs created involving skills that don’t exist today,” Marquez predicted.
He is not going out on a limb there, either. At Accenture’s International Utilities and Energy Conference in Miami last month, speaker after speaker pointed out evidence that echo the laws of Moore and Wright, showing that technological capacities continue to rise and costs keep falling, making this space-age, clean-energy future closer to grounded reality. The company showed off its Innovation Center facilities in France and Houston, where researchers are working to stretch the working limits of virtual reality training and 3-D printing for equipment parts. That’s the edge, of course, and we can always worry about that later”but not much later. Already smart meters are eliminating the historical meter reader line of work, just like Amazon is burying shopping mall retail. And, robots scare the holy moly out of everybody.
But have no fear: the utility world will need plenty of smart meter technicians, data scientists and mechanics who know their way around robot infrastructure.
“Robots break, they break like crazy,” pointed out Mary “Missy” Cummings, one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots and now a Duke University professor and director of its Humans and Autonomy Laboratory. Speaking at the Accenture IUEC event, she assured the audience that the need for technical field employees will be there for the foreseeable future.
The tools change but they still need trained workers who know how to use them. Once we measured distance with tape and now we use lasers. The T-square is replaced by AutoCAD.
One thing that never changes is that workers need to know the clear objectives of their training and duties. For Ana Sarver, who heads up fleet operations for Pacific Gas & Electric, each rollout of new technologies to be used in the company’s vehicles will require “just in time” training for its mechanics. This includes understanding the components of a new electric power take-off aerial system rolling out in September.
“When it comes to developing and retaining the best talent to help us ensure the safe and reliable operation of our fleet, we started with the end in mind, that is to say that we asked the questions, ‘What is it that we expect and need our mechanics to do?’ And the follow to that question is ‘How do we support them to meet or exceed that goal?'” she said.
Such on-the-fly training is crucial for the existing workforce, of course, but utilities are also going back to the beginning. They are encouraging and helping fund new educational programs emphasizing the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines in school districts. ComEd has numerous commitments to schools and reaches out to students of all racial, gender and economical profiles.
“As we looked into the future, we knew we needed to introduce the concept of STEM,” Marquez said. “We’re beyond the high school level, we’re at the middle school level. Whether they come to work for a utility or not, every aspect of STEM touches our lives in so many ways.”
ComEd volunteers mentor the younger generation through various programs, including an “Icebox Derby” where female students partner with engineers to build a solar-powered race car out of old refrigerators. They race for prizes, pride and fun at the end of the summer program. The Chicago-based utility also kicked off its “Stay in School” program around 12 years ago, focusing on districts with dropout rates as high as 50 percent. Now the graduation rate is closer to 90 percent for those participating in the “Stay” program.
Another program, “CONSTRUCT,” brings together utilities, construction firms and social service groups with minorities from several neighborhoods in the Chicago and northern Illinois region. All of this, in addition to traditional training programs which help retrain and refocus the current workforce, is focused on a universal point: Getting them ready for what’s coming and what’s already happening.
For instance, Marquez added, ComEd must find ways to incorporate readers who have been moved out of jobs by advanced metering infrastructure. Additional training is worth the effort if a meter reader can be re-taught to be a substation mechanic or overhead technician.
“We don’t see any other option,” he said. “It has to be that way.”
Utility job training is not limited to secondary and technical schools. For instance, Lansing Community College (LCC) in Michigan offers a 13-month utility line worker curriculum. This involves an orientation, two semesters of academic courses and 11 weeks of climbing school. LCC’s websitesnotes that there are about 5,000 line worker jobs opening up nationally every year, due to retirements and needs. LCC started the program after being approached by utility Consumers Energy to fill the gap in the future.
“As the program has developed, Lansing Community College now has our own pole yard, with an electrical grid layout (closed loop) and all of the proper equipment to simulate a lineman’s work,” Rex Peckens, LCC’s coordinator for the program, said. “We provide prospective pre-apprentice lineman to our industry partner, while also conducting our own climb school to provide prospective lineman to other utility companies.”
Peckens is seeking to connect the school with other utility companies looking for apprenticeship-ready people. He also is looking for experienced lineman who might be interested in becoming instructors.
The utility industry has got one other big thing going for it: it pays well, very well. Lineworkers can make more money than just about any other field that doesn’t require a four-year college degree, while electrical engineers can command more than $100,000. But the tradeoff is the demand for constant retraining on new technologies, safety awareness and disaster preparedness. Thus, utility and its vendors must stay perched on the edge of change while also building space in the day that allows workers to learn these new things.
“Having vendors come out and deliver their learning objectives with materials that may be outdated was no longer an option, so we started to cast a more critical eye on the training from our vendor partners and worked more closely with them in order to meet our standards,” PG&E’s Sarver said.
Another element is figuring out and being willing to accommodate time needed for training on these new tasks. What had been a two-day course on a particular subject might be pared down to one day, but the extra day is still carved out for demonstration efforts.
|Courtesy of ComEd|
“Mechanics are hands-on ‘kinesthetic’ adult learners and they have to do it to learn it,” she added. “To accommodate that need we require a significant portion of hands-on time during the training day.”
So the rush is on for new talent in the industry, but if you’re a current worker don’t forget to take a deep breath and think about what you’re doing. This willingness to reevaluate is important for the years and not just the days to come. Keep an open mind and embrace change when it presents itself. Just make sure it’s the right change for you.
ComEd’s Marquez remembered starting 36 years ago as an engineering intern working in a power plant. He made a lot of friends, inside and outside the plant. After a while one of the company higher-ups asked if he’d consider human relations.
“What did I do wrong?” he wondered after hearing the suggestion, but he went ahead and did it. “That was such an enriching experience…. Someone who told me to take the job was someone I trusted. It was a little uncomfortable at first. Nineteen months later, it was wow!”
Marquez eventually moved to the finance side and then the information technology side. These different experiences helped him form a powerful, wide-ranging view of the utility industry. “Each one of those experiences taught me a different aspect about the business.”
A key thing in learning is listening, and that works both ways for the utility and its employees, PG&E’s Sarver noted, “so that we can get their feedback on issues that are impacting their job satisfaction, and to make sure they are being set up not only for success but also to be enthusiastic, productive employees,” she said. “To accomplish that, we make sure our guys on the front line are our focus and priority.”
Workers need instructors, but they also need mentors. Those are two completely different things. An instructor teaches, a mentor advises. An instructor focuses on a task, a mentor focuses on life’s goals. An instructor talks and mentor often listens. A wise worker also listens.
“Throughout my career I’ve always found people very interested in talking about themselves,” Marquez said. “Maybe it’s ego, but you can gain a lot of nuggets out of those conversations.”
The utility industry is back on track in training workers both to replace those retiring baby boomers and give millennials greater career prospects.
“I think we’re on track and headed in the right direction,” Marquez said. “Do we have a ways to go? Absolutely.”