Utilities have known for decades big workforce shifts were coming, but pressures of a transitioning industry stifled action. Workforce challenges always seemed to be five years out.
Not now. Time to act. New development tactics mesh with tested-and-true methods. Successful development keeps pace with the social impacts of a pandemic, recent technologies and mastering the workforce shortage.
Short term, utilities must help employees learn how to learn again. According to a brief on adult learning and COVID-19 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Participation in informal learning due to widespread shutdowns … is estimated to have decreased by 25%.”
Coaching for self-development helps employees to help themselves and the company. That means everyone. “Everybody has to upskill, whether welding a pipe or pulling wires,” said Bob Karschnia, CEO of Sentient Energy Inc., an analytics, sensing and control technologies company.
Karschnia’s firm works side by side with utilities to upskill employees. “Craft laborers do not need to be experts but know how to use new technology,” he explained. “Think about cells or tablets to keep connected, do work order management from trucks, or know from a distance whether a cabinet is hot or not.”
Demographics put a new angle on what Karschnia says. “For younger people, modern technology is like breathing,” he noted. “They know and like tech. It is incumbent on senior members to learn it.”
Workforce development is for the most experienced employees, too. Do not limit development to new people.
A Path, Not A Ladder
“T&D career options are more plentiful today. It is a webbed pathway. Not one way, straight up one line anymore,” said Kristie Kelley, director of workforce development at the Center for Energy Workforce Development.
There is no simple list of skills but rather competencies like communications. Pathways are new for crafts and account for what employees already know, their learning style and aptitude for different kinds of work.
Pathways are personal, including soft skills like working well with others. “Yes, we have a lot of that with affinity groups, so people network and work together in new ways,” Kelley noted.
Create opportunities for the so-called soft skills of collaboration and communications. According to Kelley, “Retention is higher when people are connected.”
Master Change Management
Tests and training need constant content scrutiny. “We had a 10-part physical assessment but found that the work changed and five were not relevant anymore,” said Katie Krantz, Duke Energy’s director of talent acquisition. “An example — pole borer. That is automated now, a new method to get the same result.”
OG&E tailors its personal approach. “The entering workforce is more adaptable in the way they learn. One approach is microlearning, teaching quick nuggets, or single skills, versus day-after-day of training. At OG&E, we have a team of subject matter experts that identify specific skills needed for different areas of the company,” said Mark Silvers, Director, Learning and Workforce Development.
As with many utility projects, monitoring and managing change have been part of a North Louisiana transmission project. Entergy Corp.’s West Monroe reliability project includes upgrading four transmission lines to 230 kV, building a new 3-mile (4.8-km), 230-kV line, and upgrading or expanding five substations.
Methodical communication is a litmus test for development. “We implemented periodic review discussions of lessons learned from previous and concurrent projects,” said Gabe Landaverde, assistant construction manager, Burns & McDonnell. “The project team coached construction partners. Field teams and project management closely coordinated issues that couldn’t be solved solely in the field. Once solutions were conceptualized, site leads reviewed details thoroughly with construction partners and craft to ensure a common understanding to execute the solution and achieve the end need.”
Keys to success included participation across the board, openness for input and no top-down-only talk. “Constant listening and communication maintained the flow of construction with implementing solutions,” Landaverde explained. “We learned on the run.”
Markers of success: The project was done safely and completed ahead of schedule.
Dynamic systems require a way to record what is learned. “Document as much as humanly possible,” said Brandon Knight, director of process improvement for GreyStone Power, a Hiram, Georgia coop. “We use a template to record ideas and changes. Some people type, some write, some draw diagrams. Everyone should have the chance for input.”
GreyStone’s openness adds to its information storehouse. “We capture as much as we can, especially with retirement turnover,” Knight noted. “As we review the input, we find process improvements and even found some things we can automate.”
Tech Breeds Competency, Consistency
“Legacy training techniques such as in-person training and online training are improved using technology to more accurately determine whether a trainee is getting it or not,” said Rocky Sease, vice president of industrial skills for HSI, a training, safety management and compliance solutions company. “Immersive training technology such as simulation, virtual reality and augmented reality are being incorporated into leading training programs.”
Recruits expect education delivered in multiple formats and paced for each of them. “The stress of ineffective training is one reason people seek other employment,” Sease explained.
New York Power Authority (NYPA) scores well in tech, having introduced virtual reality (VR) for aerial lift training. Computer-generated simulations provide practice for employees who have never operated lifts in real life or who want to sharpen their skills.
“VR is ready for prime time,” said Kedaar Raman, NYPA director of corporate strategy. “Training is perfect for VR — cost competitive, repeatable, provides metrics. VR reduces risk by having a worker practice; become a lot more informed before hitting the work site."
Familiarity is a VR strength. “The employee’s situational awareness improves. Skill retention is greater when it is experienced vs. just heard in a class,” Raman noted.
VR is not an absolute replacement, though. Remember the lesson to combine new methods with proven existing methods. According to Raman, “One-on-one, on-the-job, over-the-shoulder training is the confidence builder. That personal touch helps employees learn the ropes. Feedback is personal and quick. Employees need camaraderie to make knowledge stick.”
Before the Workplace
Workforce development begins before hiring. Recruiters and trainers get a clearer picture of future employees by venturing outside their utilities. Tech schools, high schools and job fairs are troves of information about candidates.
Every visit outside the utility builds the corporate workforce brand. Think of it as pre-developing future employees. Get potential candidates interested, first, in crafts and tech; second, in thinking about jobs; and third, about your utility.
Missouri coops dig deep for prequalified people. “We invite tech students to training, the line worker rodeo, places where we can develop real relationships and scope out the best people,” said Jim McCarty of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives.
Focus is the operative word. "A couple of years ago, we would post jobs and sort through hundreds of applicants," recalled Duke Energy’s Krantz.
Not now. Duke uses a customized online assessment developed through Modern Hire to help applicants learn more about the work. The tool not only assesses candidates but also educates them. “We found higher pass and completion rates as individuals could do this online vs. paper,” Krantz said. “It gives us a higher quantity of people that fit our needs. There is no barrier to diversity, either.”
If the applicant graduates from a community college line worker training program, that person has a likelihood of getting a job offer.
Duke’s hiring system is as follows:
- Virtual assessment
- In-person physical assessment.
“We have a two-way benefit with this method,” Krantz noted. “When they come to work, they need less training, usually a quarter of the initial time — two weeks vs. 10 or so to ramp up.”
The benefits include getting people to work faster and saving money.
Such online training is always available and essentially a no-cost repeatable activity. The utility harvests test scores and discovers how applicants learn the work. In the end, the tool is not just a screener but a data opportunity to tighten up hiring and development.
Field of Dreams Development
A barrier to utility hiring and development is tradition. Utilities have been a mainstay of communities and, for decades, people aspired to work there.
Not so much now. The post-a-job-and-they-will-come mentality is gone. Utilities must compete in the job market now. An employee’s what’s in it for me (WIIFM) is a turnaround for utility thinking.
Well-developed, positive employees build an employee brand in the marketplace; this builds a positive atmosphere for development once inside the walls of the company. Krantz said it well, "Companies advertise their products, services and social causes but rarely their employee value proposition. That is a gap."
Krantz is right. Workforce development starts with the best minds and hearts in recruits.
Think (and Act) Long Term
Even with innovative technologies and the changing characteristics of recruits handled, long-term thinking will be the hardest issue to master. The culprit is the corporate budget cycle. Workforce development cannot be switched on and off, and on again, in a heartbeat. Yet budget cycles and yearly justifications to upper management have put short-term attitudes in place.
Workforce development is part of resilience, though. Whether “employees are our most important asset” is only in a glossy environmental, social and governance (ESG) report or is true in the utility workplace is the test.
For More Information
Burns & McDonnell | www.burnsmcd.com
Duke Energy | www.duke-energy.com
Entergy | www.entergy.com
GreyStone Power | www.greystonepower.com
NYPA | www.nypa.gov
OG&E | www.oge.com
Sentient Energy | www.sentientenergy.com