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Hiring The Future

The baby boomers are retiring.  En mass.  And, as they did in the sixties, they’re redefining the society they’ve dominated, this time the workplace.  Their mass departure from the workplace has actually been delayed a few years by the recent mega recession, but as the economy recovers their exit has only accelerated.  While virtually all sectors of the economy have been affected, the utility sector has been hit especially hard.  There are several reasons for that disproportionate disruption: the utility sector has traditionally employed “lifers”, workers who spent their entire working life with a single company; and utility workers are typically highly skilled and have acquired deep knowledge and quick reaction times to problems, making them hard to replace.  Making matters even more difficult, the mass exodus of these hard-to-replace workers is happening just as the utility industry is undergoing massive, disruptive change.

According to recent estimates by the Department of Energy and others who study the industry, more than one-half of the current utility workforce will be eligible to retire in the next four to six years.  That is hardly news, but many utilities have failed to prioritize recruitment efforts.  The industry was never particularly concerned about recruitment because it didn’t have to be.  As a particularly stable sector that offered good wages, utilities haven’t had to reach out to maintain their workforce; young people flocked to them.  To make matters worse, HR departments were stressed as utilities tightened their belts due to economic pressures as demand fell, regulatory pressures increased, and consolidation put pressure on utilities to economize.  All this at a time of serious demands to upgrade legacy systems with new, highly technical technologies.

During the 1980s and 1990s the training programs that traditionally provided candidates for the industry shrank, coinciding with a widespread shift away from technical education, toward an emphasis on four-year college programs.  Because of the need for increasingly more technically sophisticated workers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as other training programs become more available.  In fact, training programs are beginning to surge once again.  To cite just one example, only five energy workforce training programs were in place in the state of Washington in 2005.  By 2016, that number had surged to 20, according to a report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and the trend is nation-wide. 

Even if the number of candidates who complete these training programs increases, however, a gap between hiring and full integration into the workforce will remain; it takes between 4.5 and 7 years from initial training to become a fully educated line worker, for example.  And because future workers are being trained through a variety of programs, including community colleges, apprenticeships, and four-year colleges, the lack of uniform standards means utilities often have to retest skills and retrain candidates. 

In order to address the problem of a lack of trained applicants, utilities are increasingly partnering with high schools and community colleges to develop programs to ease the integration of new workers and shorten the time needed for additional in-house training.  For example, Eversource, New England’s largest utility, partnered with Bunker Hill Community College to offer an associate of science degree in electric power utility technology, and community- and four-year colleges throughout the country have initiated programs that focus on renewable energy and smart-grid technology.

At the same time utilities expand their recruitment and training efforts, they need to rethink their internal cultures.  Young people entering the workforce today have never been interested in life-time job security, which, to them, is an artifact from another age.  They’re much more concerned about being involved in a socially useful endeavor, one that’s environmentally friendly, cutting edge and continually challenging.  To attract these people, utilities have to transition from their image of being safe, steady and dull places to work to being dynamic centers of innovation.  They also have to make concerted efforts to broaden their employment base by being more welcoming to women and minorities, demographics that have been grossly underrepresented in the utility industry.

As the industry is rapidly moving toward a new model, one that will require new skill sets to meet the demands of IT, distributed resources and customer interaction, the very definition of electric utility worker will change just as radically.  Over 43 percent of utilities report that the aging workforce and the increased rate of retirements is one of their top three most pressing challenges, according to the Department of Energy’s 2017 Quadrennial Energy Review.  To fill the gap on a temporary basis, many utilities are turning to outsourcing, but, except for certain high-tech, temporary upgrade issues, temporary workers are not a permanent solution.  Increased focus on changing the image of the industry, partnering with educational institutions – from high school through graduate school – to increase training in STEM disciplines, and keeping pay rates competitive with other industries will ultimately determine the health of the utility industry in the twenty-first century.

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