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The Future of the Utilities Workforce: Building Capabilities in the Digital Era

The utility industry is facing a major challenge as it navigates the constantly evolving landscape of the electric grid. Managing the transformation brought about by the increasing popularity of electric vehicles, the rise of remote and hybrid work, and the growing reliance on renewable energy sources has become central to the industry. Operators must adapt to these changes to effectively track and manage network assets and energy consumption patterns.

Grid modernization and technology optimization are crucial to tackle these challenges. However, the industry is handicapped by a complex legacy information technology (IT) landscape that siloes information and applications that support the grid, and compromises operational workflow efficiencies. This has created difficulties in increasing operational efficiency and transforming the physical grid assets. To address this issue, utility operators need to focus on implementing modern technology that integrates all information streams into an accurate view of the physical grid that can be shared across the organization. A real-time digital twin.

To make matters more challenging, the industry is also experiencing a workforce crisis. As older workers retire, recruiting the next generation of engineers to replace them is becoming increasingly difficult. As a result, operators must not only modernize their technology, but also adapt their workforce strategies to ensure a successful transformation of the electric grid.

The Growing Struggle to Attract and Retain Talent

The utility sector heavily relies on its workforce and cutting-edge technology cannot be fully utilized without an engaged, up-skilled workforce. However, the industry is currently encountering significant hurdles when it comes to hiring and retaining qualified technical workers.

The existing workforce is aging and a large number of experienced workers are retiring, exacerbated by the impact of the recent pandemic. In tandem, recruiters are struggling to find individuals with specific skill sets to fill critical positions as job vacancies remain unfilled for extended periods of time. According to a global survey conducted by McKinsey, the tech sector is one of the industries facing the most significant challenges, with almost 90% of executives and managers reporting skill gaps in their organizations, or expecting them to arise within the next five years—reflecting the reality of the utilities sector.

Energy recruiters have also expressed concerns regarding the workforce, with 56% citing an aging demographic, and insufficient recruitment and training, as significant challenges. Although targeted training programs have been launched by many electric operators, greater attention is needed to address the quickly widening skills and employment gaps.

Unlocking the Strengths of the Digital Native Generations

Utility companies acknowledge the necessity of adopting the latest technology to keep up with modernization imperatives but many are still struggling to understand where to begin. Deloitte’s report “Positioning utilities to win the battle for talent” highlights this, calling the industry out for its static image, slow adaptation, and lack of innovation due to its reliance on legacy tools.

Fortunately, this situation presents an opportunity for operators to kill two birds with one stone: organizations can increase operational efficiency, and also attract and retain technical workers, by implementing modern technology. This can be approached by refraining from filling the skills gap left by retiring senior talent. Instead, operators can engage the competencies of the digital native Gen Z and Millennial generations, creating a new skill set that matches their existing talents.

A digital twin that captures and shares an accurate view of the physical network is a good example of a modern tool that can address both technical and human challenges. It helps break down siloed technology and increase operational efficiency by allowing operators to share critical information across teams. A digital geospatial model of the grid is also more intuitive for younger generations to use since they’ve grown up with technology and are much more comfortable with it than traditional paper maps that continue to be used by field engineers.

Involving Existing Employees in Digital Transformation

It’s essential for businesses to incorporate the latest technology to attract and retain talent, but it’s equally important to consider existing employees during this transition. Digital transformation success relies on commitment from all team members, and employees must feel like active contributors when implementing new technology.

Employees should be involved throughout the entire technology deployment process to ensure assimilation. Operators can achieve this by taking existing employees’ on-the-job experiences into account during the evaluation, selection, and implementation process.

Involving employees in the process increases job satisfaction and also supports longer-term retention. People feel a sense of pride and ownership over their contributions to the organization when they have a voice in the changes being made. This promotes continued valuable input for future improvements, ultimately leading to increased efficiency and effectiveness.

Forward-thinking companies are embracing digital transformation as they move away from manual processes toward a fully digital environment. This shift helps eliminate information silos, increase network data quality, as well as reduce workplace incidents and accelerate response times to network outages.

Overall, a fully digital environment makes employees’ lives easier and more fulfilling. By involving them in the process of testing and implementing new technology, employees are able to witness positive change firsthand, which further promotes a virtuous feedback loop.

Framing Modern Technology Adoption as a Democratic Process

Implementation of modern technology may cause existing employees, particularly those in older age groups, to view it as a threat to their traditional working practices. It’s crucial for utility operators to reduce these concerns by communicating that the adoption of modern technology will benefit all workers and is not a means to replace old employees with new ones.

Operators can emphasize the added value that technology can bring to employees, regardless of their tenure. It’s crucial to highlight how the democratization of modern technology provides workers with the tools needed to improve their performance and play a vital role in the transformation of the electric grid for future generations.

Engaging the workforce is fundamental to addressing the challenges faced by the utility industry. To achieve this, operators can provide up-to-date technology that leverages the skill sets of Gen Z and Millennials, while also ensuring existing employees aren’t left behind. Their years of experience is more valuable today than ever before as next-generation technology is deployed across the grid.

The electric utility workforce makes our daily lives possible, and they will play a huge role in achieving net-zero decarbonization targets. Collaboration with the workforce and the deployment of the latest technology and processes are crucial in overcoming the technical and environmental challenges currently facing the industry.

Troy Freissle-Lewis is Utility Industry Product Manager with IQGeo.

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