T&D World Magazine

Tackling Aging Workforce Woes

Walking to a session, I couldn’t help but notice the many gray-haired engineers attending this year’s IEEE PES T&D conference. To be fair, I’ve also seen many students and under-30 engineers walking the halls and sitting in sessions. Still, according to many published studies, the industry must do more to attract student engineers to the electric power field.

What exactly needs to be done by the industry was discussed in yesterday’s super session on "Aging Workforce - Overcoming the Technical Talent Challenge." Several industry members shared their perspectives on this important topic.

IEEE PES President Wanda Reder kicked off the session by sharing what PES is doing to change the image of the industry, attract talent and retain it. In an effort to build the momentum on this topic, PES cosponsored a workshop last November in Washington, D.C. A cross-section of industry, government and academic leaders attended the two-day event.

The purpose of the workshop was to explore how to build university infrastructure for the upcoming power engineering demand. "What we found is that we need to make the case for building and enhancing and sustaining [electrical engineering education] programs," said Reder.

A key set of recommendations came out of this workshop. To begin work on the recommendations, PES is creating the Power & Energy Engineering Workforce Collaboration.

While Reder focused on what PES is doing, EPRI’s Clark Gellings honed in on the incredible amount and types of skills that will be required in the electric-utility industry as the demand for electricity rises, as the need for energy efficiency and renewables increases, as infrastructure is being rebuilt and as new technologies are being implemented. From the Smart Grid to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to distributed energy, tackling such initiatives is going to require the best in engineering talent, Gellings said.

Jeff Fleeman of American Electric Power (AEP) discussed the benefits of a cooperative program as a way to recruit. AEP reinstated its co-op program 12 years ago, and it has grown into a big success for the company.

In 1996, when AEP’s co-op program was reinstated, the company started with 12 students per year in the program. Now, it has 26 students per year. One-third of AEP’s hires each year come from the co-op program. In fact, more than 80% of students in the program become hires for AEP. Fleeman commented that if the student is a good fit, AEP will hire him or her even if the company doesn’t have an immediate opening.

In order for a co-op program to be successful, Fleeman said it’s important to place value in it and safeguard it from budget cuts. The real benefit of the program can be seen over the long term, so it’s important to keep it going year after year.

Fred Dennert of BC Hydro said there’s a simple way to get the talent you need: "Set aside the time to recruit." Dennert makes recruiting a top priority.

He added that retention of senior engineers is equally important. "It takes two newbies to replace one oldie but goody," said Dennert. Offering flexible work schedules and staging retirements of senior engineers are two ways BC Hydro is retaining them, to pass on the knowledge of things they do on "auto pilot" that would take a so-called newbie much longer to perform. Dennert also said it’s important for there to be "plenty of overlap" between the retirement of a senior engineer and his or her replacement, to pass on the knowledge. And by "plenty," Dennert means two years, not two weeks.

The discussion by the cross-section of industry members in yesterday’s super session made it seem as though the industry really is starting to come together to begin tackling the aging workforce issue. Talking about the problem is the first step. There’s a long way to go, but it seems like the industry is off to a good start.

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