THE GROWING CONVERGENCE OF TECHNOLOGY, communications, computing and energy systems in the intelligent electric utility is casting a new light on the optimimum skill sets needed for the new utility employee.
Add to that the complicating factor of an aging and retiring workforce, with approximately 50 percent of the engineering workforce eligible for retirement in 2015, according to studies published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Center for Energy Workforce Development and the IEEE Power and Engineering Society, and a mega employment storm is brewing on the near horizon for the electric utility industry.
A report by the United States Power and Engineering Workforce Collaborative estimates that there are about 800 to 1,000 undergraduate students graduating each year with an interest in electric power engineering jobs, and that the U.S. enrollment for masters and doctoral degree students in power engineering is approximately 550, according to information provided by the Illinois Institute of Technology's new Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation (GCEI). Approximately 60 percent of graduate students are international students who may not seek employment in the United States, according to the report.
"Electric utilities are predicted to require an estimated 7,000 new hires in power engineering over the next five years. After factoring in the workforce needs of other industries, the power engineering workforce requirement could easily be doubled to 14,000 over the same time frame," the GCEI reports.
And this, as noted above, is further complicated by the fact that nearly 50 percent of the engineers currently working in electric utilities will soon be eligible for retirement. Add in the changing needs of the new electric utility market, and the numbers are mind-boggling.
Learning curve not easy
In fact, "mind-boggling" is precisely the term used by Becky Blalock, Southern Company's retiring CIO (see "A legacy left behind" on page 40). "This is a very old industry. The average worker is way up there, and they're going to retire. I'm a great example of that," Blalock said.
And it's an industry in which the learning tends to be lifelong, not hatched right out of school. "You don't just walk into this industry and understand it Day One. It's very, very complicated, and I think it takes years," Blalock said. "Kids come out of school and they're really bright, but it's going to take years before they really understand and can grasp all the concepts of what happens in the power industry.
"I think about what I've learned in the past 33 years, and it's mind-boggling to me."
Dealing with the silver tsunami
The issue Blalock highlights is of concern to a growing number of utilities facing impending retirements of senior employees, including but not limited to engineers. Highly specialized jobs require highly specialized talent, and while some utilities have dealt in the short term with the issue by hiring away from other utilities, the talent deficit overall cannot be dealt with by "rearranging the chairs," so to speak.
While operational efficiencies and outsourcing of specific tasks can deal with some of the problem, they won't cover the entire impending deficit of skilled employees. Generational silos within utilities have to some extent compounded the problem, as has a lack of knowledge-sharing problems within the utility, and especially across the "siloed" departments.
During a recent webcast presented by Energy Central's Employment Services Division, the topic of mentoring within the utility was highlighted.
Mentoring that harvests change within the utility - change that develops, improves, grows, and reinvents people - can assist a utility immeasurably when effectively utilized and monitored. A recent report completed by LifeMoxie Consulting on "The ROI of Mentoring" says that 67 percent of employees say they learn more about their jobs from coworkers than from their bosses. Further, 75 percent of executives credit mentoring with playign a key role in their careers.
SCE embraces mentoring
Case in point: Southern California Edison (SCE) instituted a mentorship program within the utility, and now leverages mentoring to drive organizational strategies including diversity and inclusion as well as retention, according to Ed Robinson, SCE's senior manager of community involvement. "I was always told that the most important door to watch in a company is the back door," Robinson told webcast attendees. "We wanted to make sure employees felt valued, felt a part of something."
As well, he said, the utility focused on moving the needle so that SCE doesn't lose valuable institutional knowledge.
The mentor program at SCE focuses on the following issues important to the utility: succession planning and knowledge transfer, talent/career development, leadership identify and development, and morale, engagement and enthusiasm. The pilot mentoring program was launched at the utility in June 2010, with a full rollout slated for November of this year.
Looking to the future workforce
While retaining institutional knowledge is imperative, changes in training on the entry end are necessary, as well.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy announced awards supporting two types of workforce training initiatives. The first type, focused on developing and enhancing workforce training programs for the electric power sector, provided funding to the tune of $41.6 million total to 33 projects at universities, community colleges and technical schools across the country. These schools are in the process of developing new training programs, strategies and curricula related to the electric power sector and the smart grid. Additionally, the awards in this category are supporting the Strategic Training and Education in Power Systems initiative, which is developing cross-disciplinary electric power system programs at both the university and college level.
A further $57.7 million total was awarded to 21 smart grid workforce training projects for new hires (including displaced workers and military veterans), as well as retraining programs for electric utility workers and electrical equipment manufacturers, focusing in smart grid technologies and their implementation.
Illinois trains on numerous levels
The GCEI was one of the recipients of DOE funding, and in 2010 initiated a $12.6 million project also supported by the State of Illinois to "educate and train the nation's workforce to meet the global challenges and opportunities of the smart grid."
The ribbon-cutting for the IIT SmartGrid Education and Workforce Training Center was held in October. The center will focus both on education at the university level, as well as early (kindergarten to Grade 12) and public smart grid education.
According to the center, early education is especially important. It notes: "With more than 400,000 students in more than 600 elementary and high schools, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is the third largest school district in the country. The CPS student population is 91 percent minority and over 75 percent live at or below the poverty threshold.
"IIT has established a partnership with the CPS to train high school teachers via down-to-earth courses, workshops and webinars on smart grid, plug-in hybrid cars and sustainable energy topics."