Raising the Next Generation of Energy Leaders

As the electric power industry moves forward with new technology, the workforce that is needed to design, build, and manage the next generation of systems will undergo an equal if not greater transformation. It is no small task to ensure education and training systems are attuned to the real needs of the system and produce the right kind of graduates.

To excel in the intensely competitive and interactive markets of the future, power companies must recruit people whose strengths include a working appreciation for what lies ahead and the nature of change. Future employees must understand how to adapt and remain flexible.

The corporate workforce is one of the few factors that management can control. As such, it’s central to many energy companies’ strategies for dealing with a rapidly changing market. Educational institutions need to be just as aware of the evolving needs of the sector as investors and project developers. But are they?

More than 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson—the 28th president of the U.S. and former president of Princeton University—famously said, “It is easier to move a cemetery than to change a curriculum.” He probably ran into more than a few people in educational institutions who were still committed to producing the proverbial buggy whip.

Multiple Planning Horizons Are the New Reality

Power project investments require both long-lived and short-lived components. Unfortunately, providers of capital and participants at all points on the supply chain may develop divided loyalties. They may be committed to long-term projects. At the same time, they may be tempted to look over their shoulder at shorter-term alternatives, particularly when new technology comes with significantly lower per-unit energy production costs, inconvenient as that may be.

Under these conditions people with long-term investments may find themselves pitted against others who want to finance new investments, sometimes in the same company. There are often healthy debates on when it’s wise to accept a slightly higher risk and higher cost of capital in order to take a position in what may be more-competitive options. For some, the answer is a no-brainer—they can’t afford not to invest in the future. For many others, arriving at a dependable answer requires new analytical skills.

How can one project, company, or industry be the paragon of stability when it is trying to attract long-term capital, while exhibiting the latest innovative thinking when planning and deploying new technology? It is a uniquely human challenge to reconcile the predictability necessary to secure financing with the flexibility necessary to capitalize on new ideas. You need a smart, perceptive, motivated workforce that is capable of learning new tricks, dealing with the unpredictable, and recognizing the consequences of recent events.

Adapting Educational Programs

Unsettled employment conditions are in the forecast. New jobs are expected to focus less on achieving scale and securing major long-term investments. Instead, they are likely to value intelligent deployment of systems that achieve high degrees of efficiency and coordination at a more-granular level, high levels of trust with consumers, and the ability to change course and adapt to circumstances.

Dynamic abilities, responsivity, and real-time awareness will be prized, not just in the systems being built, but in the employees working in the sector. Which educational programs and which institutions are most effective at imbuing a readiness for change and a capacity for managing it?

To identify effective sources for relevant education, consult the experts in education, but don’t stop there. Look at the people who embody the skills and talents required, and find out where they got their training and how it was honed. There is no substitute for talking with your staff and their professional colleagues, as they will undoubtedly have a strong sense of what’s going on and what’s needed in their respective areas.

When talking to the existing educational institutions, ask them to re-craft their offerings to meet your needs. They need to hear from you. In fact, it’s central to their own vitality that they listen and respond to you.

The workforce of the future must contend with the very real possibility that a major investment project could be outdated before it goes into operation. This requires different styles of work where participants are constantly scanning for better options and devising strategies that mitigate risk for projects once they are committed.

Although building a high-quality workforce is essential in every business, it may be that the management of human resources will be the defining feature for success in a sector like electricity that has to face the continuing challenge of reconciling constant change with long-term financing. The energy leaders of tomorrow must be creative problem solvers, agile, team players, able to think outside the box. They are likely to experience a lot of dislocation in their own work and, rather than bristling at the prospect of change, they must look forward to it as an opportunity to develop and demonstrate their own dynamic capabilities. ■

Jake Brooks is executive director with the Association of Power Producers of Ontario (APPrO) a non-profit trade organization representing Ontario’s independent power producers and related businesses (www.appro.org).