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How Automation Can Help the Utilities Industry Address the Impending Workforce Gap

March 22, 2024

The fact that the P&U (power and utilities) industry is staring down the threat of a significant workforce shortage is undeniable. Over the course of the next ten years, the industry will have to replace upwards of 100,000 workers across job functions, and attracting younger workers to the sector has proven to be a challenge. A paramount priority industry-wide has to be taking meaningful steps to address lagging talent acquisition—but also important is retaining the current workers who run the risk of being overworked. Fortunately, there are already solutions that can help streamline operations: Embracing a more modernized workflow via automation can make utilities workers’ lives easier (and customers happier).

A Looming Workforce Gap 

By next year, around 50% of the current utilities workforce will be eligible to retire; and retirements will only accelerate considering 70% of those in utilities are currently over the age of 40. Add to that those who have already left the industry during the so-called Great Recession sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s easy to see how the power and utilities industry could be on the brink of losing decades worth of skills and knowledge across all job functions.

Just these two factors would create an existentially dangerous workforce gap, but they’re compounded by yet another: P&U is having a very hard time attracting new talent, particularly among younger workers, who are increasingly attracted to jobs in the tech industry. With millennials on track to make up 75% of the workforce by 2025, this is a pressing issue.

Operational Pressures Lead to Unhappy Customers

No matter the industry, it can be stressful when coworkers start leaving. It tends to lead to added work and the other employees remaining to pick up the slack. Internal processes that have historically relied on the contribution of several people can be disrupted, communication can be delayed, and everything slows down. An industry struggling with its employee numbers cannot risk this kind of burnout and overworking among its staff. Beyond the very real dangers to employee retention, gummed up internal processes also allow more space for errors. For some vital operations of utility companies, like billing, even small errors can have huge consequences.

Longer turnaround times, increased errors, less engaged workers—that’s a recipe for decreased customer satisfaction. For an industry as vital to day-to-day life as water or energy, customer satisfaction is more than a score or a box to check. It can represent meaningful elements of quality of life.

What does drive customer happiness? Smooth and streamlined experiences. Advances in data collection and analysis technology across industries have led to increasing customer expectation for faster, more personalized experiences. Why should P&U be an exception? Customers know that their utility providers have tons of demographic and other data about them. So why aren’t they using it?

The Opportunity for Automation

Automation is one of the most powerful tools for improving operational efficiency. Technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning can handle tedious manual tasks—the sorts of tasks that can take people hours can be accomplished in seconds when leveraging automation. What’s more, automation substantially reduces the risk of errors and oversight that can be so easy for humans to make.

One area where automation can have an especially profound impact in the P&U space is invoicing and billing—which is also the most important customer touchpoint in a utility customer’s journey. There are so many ways automation can streamline receiving and paying a utility bill, for both the customer and the overworked utility employee: Chatbots can answer common questions that would usually involve a phone call. Switching to paperless billing saves time for both the customer and the utility company by removing the need for manual intervention. Customers are less likely to forget to pay their bills—a process that costs the customer money and the utility time—when they can handle the chore in a few seconds through an online portal. The risk of errors throughout these processes is also dramatically smaller when repetitive tasks are offloaded onto machines.

On top of increased customer satisfaction, leveraging automation can empower workers to advance their own careers. For instance, workers who once had to spend hours of the day fielding hundreds of customer service calls or collating and organizing the paperwork that comes with manual billing could be able to use their newfound extra time to dive into other challenges or inefficiencies across their organization. Addressing these processes could allow for workers to achieve upward mobility in their own careers. What’s more, showcasing a modernized and streamlined workflow could very well help turn the tide when it comes to attracting a younger workforce. By embracing digital transformation and bucking the image of a stodgy, legacy institution, the utilities industry could give Millennials and Gen Z-ers who want to work in tech a reason to give to the P&U sector another glance.

A confluence of factors make the looming threat of a workforce gap a very real worry. But it’s not as bleak as it may seem. By leveraging automation, utilities companies can make their current workers’ lives easier, their customers happier, and possibly even attract new workers.

Anita brings over 17 years of experience in client support and relationship management. At Invoice Cloud, she is responsible for Client Services, helping the service teams provide exceptional customer support with thorough and quick resolution. Prior to Invoice Cloud, she spent 13 years at MCC, an online bill payment company servicing local government and utilities.

When Anita isn’t thinking of new and creative ways to help clients, you can find her on the basketball court playing in various leagues or even coaching her son’s youth basketball team. She also enjoys traveling and spending the day at the beach with her husband and two children.

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