Empowering the Power Delivery Workforce

Nov. 6, 2018
The industry will experience an exodus of expertise in the next decade, and an increased effort should be made to empower the remaining and future workforce.

How does the power industry strengthen its workforce when so many experienced workers and mentors are leaving the industry through retirement?  What are the best approaches to accelerate and advance training with younger staff?  Why is it important to invest in succession planning to transfer knowledge and skills so in-house expertise is not depleted?

These were some of the questions addressed in the T&D World webinar sponsored by Dow on Sept. 18, 2018, with industry experts Amy Hile (Southwire), Rusty Bascom (Electrical Consulting Engineers) and Mike Ahern (Worcester Polytechnic Institute).

The shared insights focused on the challenge of empowering the workforce from a human resources, technical engagement and educational perspective. The following recap highlights some of the key takeaways in each of these areas. 

Employment Engagement and Succession Planning

The traditional methods of periodic performance reviews, which reflect on goals achieved and core competencies, are proven ways to ensure employees receive feedback at least on an annual basis. However, Amy Hile indicates that Southwire employees are also given the opportunity to be placed in “talent pools” that focus on their aptitudes and potential capabilities.  This allows employees to better understand their interests and skills, which increases the chance they will find a more rewarding long-term career track. As we are faced with the current and future challenges around workforce, succession planning is important. This gives employers a candidate pool to select from for potential career and development opportunities

Another focus for Southwire is employee engagement. The Employee Net Promoter Score is one method used to gauge success, where survey results are compiled to determine the employee’s view of the work environment and overall quality of the company in several different facets.

Training for managing conflict, leadership, and strategy is offered, and in many cases required, for those in leadership positions to improve their ability to motivate and engage a team. 

All these initiatives improve employment engagement, help increase retention, and provide career opportunities as well as pathways of success for current and future employees at Southwire.

Improving Technical Knowledge and Interest

One of the challenges for the engineering field is to develop skills sets to a depth of competency where an employee can contribute meaningful technical knowledge.  Unfortunately, in recent years the norms have shifted so that after an engineer achieves a level of core competency, they are often rotated into another area to gain diversified experience, instead of developing expertise.  This shift of career path can decrease an employee’s work interest, which may risk the ability to retain them just as their capability to proactively contribute has substantially improved.

Supporting industry involvement to enhance an employee’s technical skills can be key during these early years of career development.  If an engineer does not see a commitment from the employer to provide opportunities for technical engagement, then interest and job fulfillment can wane. As Rusty Bascom stated in a simple and direct way, “You reap what you sow.”  Bascom mentioned that one path to foster continued interest is to provide the employee with opportunities to participate in technical associations and committees.  Opportunities to attend the IEEE Power & Energy Society meetings and get involved in its committee work is one avenue.

During the live webinar, attendees completed a survey indicating that 76% of the respondents attended technical events for “personal development” reasons.  Unfortunately, only a small percentage of those attending were from utilities. These survey results indicate that attendees are seeking personal development enrichment, but participation is mostly from sectors other than utilities, perhaps suggesting that utility organizations are not supporting employee participation. This should cause utilities to reflect and ponder whether this dynamic is contributing to the challenge of retaining and engaging in-house staff.

Hands-On, On-The-Job and Online Training

As was stated in the webinar, as high as 40% of electric power workers are eligible for retirement now.  This is going to leave a huge labor shortage and a make it difficult to pass-along knowledge through traditional mentoring methods. Obviously, there will be a need for ongoing training of all types to help fill the void. 

Hands-on and on-the-job training is always difficult to provide since it can be disruptive and inconvenient.  However, taking the approach of trainers assisting in the field or performing demonstrations on-site can be very effective.  Hands-on training facilities are another great alternative that select utilities have developed.  Mike Ahern referenced a recent example of Eversource Energy opening a new state-of-the-art facility in 2017.  Facilities like this provide substantial opportunity for both indoor and outdoor training.

Out of all the training available, the greatest strides have been made with online offerings. Online coursework is ideal for any periodic education requirement like compliance and safety classes.  The flexibility and on-demand nature of online courses is of significant value.  According to Ahern, there is a definite preference for online courses from the students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.  He explained how WPI partners with the Energy Providers Coalition for Education to offer a Master of Engineering in Power Systems Engineering.  Many utility employees from various locations have taken advantage of their program and been able to advance their career development.

In conclusion, the ability to empower the power delivery workforce can be directly correlated to the training and educational opportunities provided by the companies in the industry.  All the methods referenced are viable means to train, retain and develop the workforce.  The industry will experience an exodus of expertise in the next decade, and an increased effort should be made to empower the remaining and future workforce.

Keeping the lights on: Empowering the power delivery workforce webinar is now available on-demand. This was the first webinar in a three-part series sponsored by Dow addressing challenges facing the industry. The next webinar will be Meeting customer expectations: Strategic and data-driven grid resiliency programs on Nov. 15, 2 p.m ET.

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