Addressing the Aging U.S. Utilities Workforce Crisis
The Current Situation
No one can argue against the need for a thriving workforce in the utilities field service management sector. Whether discussing electric power, natural gas, steam supply, water supply, or sewage removal, analysts agree that each utility sub-sector plays an integral role in the United States (U.S) economy. Not to mention the safe functioning of our power infrastructure, sewers, and natural gas lines.
But recent reports have uncovered alarming trends about how rapidly the utilities workforce is retiring. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), more than 30% of utilities workers are within a few years of retirement eligibility. And more than half are over 50 years old.
Digging a layer deeper uncovers the specific challenges faced within each utility sub-sector.
For example, Power Engineering reports the power sector will need more than 100,000 skilled workers by 2018 to replace retiring baby boomers. Electric, Light, and Power reports 72% of energy employers currently struggle to find quality candidates, and fill open positions. Finally, The National Electrical Contractors Association reports 7,000 electricians join the field each year, while 10,000 retire.
What can be done about this utilities workforce crisis?
Recognize Millennials & Boomers Have Different Working Styles
A big challenge in utilities has been attracting young talent. Despite great pay, and a reliable future outlook, many roles in utilities have simply failed to attract younger generations. After all, why follow a career in electrical engineering, when you could be a much cooler computer programmer instead?
Baby boomers and millennials have very different communication styles and work habits. Boomers care most about making good money, whereas millennials want their careers to carry deeper meaning. Baby boomers show skepticism towards new workplace technology, whereas millennials embrace BYOD (bring your own device), and flexible work environments wholeheartedly.
We have a new generation to train, and we need to stop wasting our time demonizing their habits. Whether we like it or not, they are the future. Of course, they stand to learn nearly everything from older generations. But we must also adapt to their skills, needs, and work requirements if we expect to attract them to a career in utilities in the first place.
A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the utilities industry summarized the issue in the following manner:
“Younger workers learn differently. They tend to be much more tech savvy—good news for the industry as smart-grid infrastructures and alternative fuels transform its rather staid, old-fashioned image. Even state-of-the-art utilities, however, still need to be able to speak the language of today’s technology driven generation.”
Until recently, utilities jobs have been primarily staffed by white males. But as many white boomers retire, the demographic makeup is shifting.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the U.S. population over 55 is primarily white, whereas the population under 35 is nearly 50% minorities.
To succeed in training a new generation of workers, utilities leaders must embrace diversity. Key to this process is understanding cultural differences, cues, and workplace motivations. Likely the best path forward is to ensure utilities leadership reflects the cultural and ethnic diversity of the labor force they manage.
Embracing diversity isn’t easy for everyone, but it is essential to attracting the next generation of utilities professionals.
Include Aging Workers in Training Programs
Experienced techs are busy, and in high demand. As they near retirement, consider giving them a few days away from the grind to help your organization build out a training, or transition plan. Many utilities organizations are moving to cloud-based knowledge repositories, and software to manage all the brainpower that has been accumulating in field tech’s brains for decades. Whether or not you leverage software for knowledge management purposes, be sure to include aging workers in any training, and transition process.
The worst possible scenario for utilities is having decades of knowledge walk out the door the day a tech retires.
Don’t let that happen. Set up a formal program where you document knowledge from your most experienced utilities workers. Get their parts knowledge, best practices, undocumented equipment quirks, and route strategies down on paper, or in a database where others can learn from it.
Consider pairing up aging techs and newcomers. Allow your most inexperienced techs to shadow your most experienced techs, and learn the ropes faster.
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