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Leadership for Lineworkers, Part 4: Succession Planning

Jan. 14, 2020
With waves of lineworkers retiring from the utility industry, companies need to identify future leaders and make a succession plan.

Succession planning is the single most important factor ensuring the success of a company's future from a safety, quality and production standpoint.

Back in the mid-2000s at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the manager and superintendent of our Grid Assets T&D Line Division recognized that we needed to chart a course of identifying, training and mentoring future leaders. We were looking at some dire projections at attrition levels in our experienced workforce. Retirements, resignations and disabilities could affect our ability to ensure a well-trained and educated workforce then and in the future.

Identifying Future Leaders
The department's management team, consisting of the manager and all of his direct reports including the superintendent and his line supervisors, met and developed a plan of action to develop training, identification of future leaders and how to train and mentor them. The manager and superintendent took on the task of developing the roster of all of the individuals in the department, segmenting them by job classification, age, years of service and projected retirement dates. They then plugged all the data into an Excel spreadsheet.

The rest of the supervisors met to discuss potential leaders in all of the departments, what methodology we would use and also how to help our existing foremen become better leaders in order to ensure that they would be able to communicate the leadership team's goals to the rest of the troops.

Embracing Challenges
Once the spreadsheet was fully developed, we had a leadership meeting with the manager and superintendent. The spreadsheet, once projected onto a screen, showed how challenging the attrition levels and drop in experience would be, particularly amongst the Baby Boomers. With all of us gathered, we began to put some numbers and revise the existing assumptions about individuals based on each supervisor’s knowledge of the department and the workers.

At the time I was in charge of the meter and service department, which had two-man crews performing installations of overhead and underground services and meter sets. This department was where our more experienced (older linemen) would eventually end up since the tasks weren’t as physically challenging as working on a line crew. That being said, this group of workers had decades of experience that couldn’t be replaced with any amount of training. It was like the old saying, “No one is born with a beard.”        

Additionally, with these seasoned veterans, I had some internal challenges in this department.

1. Filling out Forms. The years of doing line work had taken a huge toll on these guys. I spent a lot of time filling out workers' compensation forms for present and past injuries. These guys knew that by doing this, they could get their medical issues taken care of by the company before they retired. I tell companies that they might as well hand out the workers comp forms the first day they hire a person to be lineman because they will eventually have “repetitive injuries” based on doing years of physical labor under some extreme conditions.

2. Making a Smooth Transition. We also had to adjust for the transition of experienced linemen from the line crew to becoming inspectors. As the private sector was building at a very fast rate, we couldn’t keep up with the production using our own internal resources and had to contract out work. More contractors equal more inspectors, and more inspectors mean linemen moving from the crews to the inspection department.

3. Making a Plan. As our meetings progressed, we needed to develop a plan for hiring more apprentices on a continual cycle to meet the attrition levels we were experiencing and the imminent tidal wave based on future projections. We were not talking about decades into the future--we were looking at annual losses of key personnel within a few years. It would have been detrimental to our ability to replace them with new hires. It takes at least four years to get a new hire from a first step apprentice to journeyman level in most organizations. A brand new journeyman still requires several years of seasoning in order to be proficient and skillful in order to provide the optimum levels of safety and productivity.

There really isn’t enough space in this article for me to detail all of the goals and objectives we set out to achieve. However, with a lot of hard work, and support from our manager, and the executives above him, we were able to create a well-thought-out plan, budgets, and access resources to achieve our mission of succession planning.

Do you have a question for Max? E-mail him with your inquiries about career development and leadership training and topics you would like to see for future columns. 

About the Author

Maximo Fuentes

Maximo Fuentes ([email protected]) retired as the Grid Assets T&D Line Supervisor-Business Operations for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in Sacramento, California. He now owns a consulting business, Fuentes Consulting LLC, a company that provides technical consulting, leadership development and expert witness services to the transmission and distribution utility industry. 

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