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Reder unearths workforce solutions

Wanda Reder has been in this biz since 1987. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” she joked.

In addition to her role as chief strategy officer at S&C Electric Company, she served as president of the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) from 2008-09 and launched IEEE Smart Grid, serving as chair from 2009-13. She currently serves on the IEEE Board and IEEE Foundation Board.  (She’s also hoping to run for prez of the whole IEEE shebang in the near future.)

But we didn’t talk to Reder about S&C or even her new presidential ambitions. Instead, we chatted about her passion—one that’s been ablaze for her since her work with Exelon.

Reder wants to figure out how to bring the power industry the best workforce possible, and she’s doing so by examining what younger workers want, what mid-career workers need and how the industry should be planning to balance both, along with the exodus of older workers.

“I started getting an inkling that turned into a passion on workforce when I was at ComEd,” she said. “We were downsizing.  We weren’t hiring. And, as an organization, we were rapidly aging.

“That left us with little pipeline in terms of people,” she added.

So Reder took it upon herself to learn more about the problem. She did lots of research. She studied and studied and realized that, unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated problem. It was everywhere in the power business.

Workforce issues were disappointingly widespread. 

She had planned to write a book, “but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘nah, nobody’s going to read this thing,’” she said.

Plus, books rely on others to make change. They are inspirational, but Reder was already inspired and wanted to get involved in the change.

So, she ran for president of IEEE’s Power & Energy Society and won. From that platform, she could do more than write about the workforce problem. She could get her hands on it, her brain around it and look at solutions.

Reder started by working trying to understand the numbers on this topic, which was difficult, because they didn’t exist. Initially, she did primary research by reaching out to utility executives through EEI.  Then, the Center for Energy Workforce (CEWD) was established in 2006 to help utilities work together to develop solutions to the coming workforce shortage in the utility industry.  IEEE PES had done some work on the availability to power engineering ciriculums.  By coupling these sources together, it was concluded in a report published in April 2009 that the rate of undergraduates taking power needed to double to meet the need for power engineers in upcoming years.  And once they had the numbers, what came next was easier to justify—namely scholarship initiatives, to attract the best and brightest talent to the power industry was essential to beef up that pipeline she once found so hollow and empty.

Reder helped launch the IEEE Power and Energy Society Scholarship Plus Initiative back in 2011, which has resulted in well over 700 scholarships since.

After the number crunching and the launch of the IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Initiative, came more concepts that were less statistical and more cultural in nature.

These days, Reder looks for way to “power up” the next gen of industry workers—the ones just starting careers or just coming out of college and eying the power industry rather warily. She wants to tell them all the power biz has to offer today, but there are hurdles.

Reder sees two things happening here. The first is that the infrastructure the power industry is working with is changing. It’s getting younger, faster and higher tech-connected, which is a skill set the industry needs (and is visible in younger workers as a natural tendency). But, a lot of that infrastructure is old and well known by experienced workers, and that knowledge needs to be passed on to younger employees. Reder calls this “tribal knowledge.”

She said, “Moving the tribal knowledge to a new workforce coming in with newer skill sets is key—that is, if we can get past the biggest hurdles for younger workers to seriously consider the power business. The perception of our industry is that we are old school, but old school just isn’t the mindset of new gens. But, in reality, that’s not what’s happening right now. There are a lot of changes, a lot of new tech, a lot of new opportunities to move up quickly as older workers leave.” 

She added, “We’re going to have to recognize that the ones like me who have been around for 20 or more years have been loyal overall, but the incoming workforce will shift that focus away from loyalty—being inherently more mobile with transferable skills. From an HR perspective, we’ll have to adjust compensation schemes to be more market-based inside and outside the industry.”

So, better pay and more flexibility are a start, but, while Reder started off seeing the education gaps in skill set, now she sees them in mindset. 

“To appeal to the new gen who like to know they are making a difference, we need to tell the important story of the power industry—how we are the backbone of society at large. Millennials want to make a difference in the real world. We need to do a better job of making this connection and just don’t tell that story well. This disconnect is a huge cultural change in how we message.  It will be really important to future workers who need to be inspired,” she said.

And we’re at a place where this workforce discussion is critical, Reder believes. The business is changing and the industry needs to “inject people who think differently, have broader skills and have a multidisciplinary background.

“It may feel like a threat right now, without a doubt, but it can be turned into an opportunity if handled correctly,” she added.

So, what’s a power industry workforce activist to do to really grab this opportunity? Reder suggested that all organizations need to plan for this generational workforce shift on a strategic level and have someone responsible for mapping out attrition and the transfer of that tribal knowledge.  

And, while you’re looking at attrition numbers, risk of losing critical knowledge also needs to be factored into the analysis.  

“Face it,” she said. “Some people carry more tribal knowledge than others and it is difficult, if not impossible, to replace them. Risk assessment and contingency planning for those key individuals are really important. 

“Know where the knowledge lies,” Reder said. “Know when a newbie can’t possibly back-fill it Understand the soft spots in the human matrix and develop a plan to sustain organizational know-how.”

These types of issues have influenced the framework for the upcoming 2015 IEEE PES General Meeting, said Reder. That meeting’s theme is “Powering Up The Next Generation” and this topic will be addressed during the course of the event. 

And one last note: Do it now. While there may have been an unexpected lull in retirements with the recent economic recession, as people get back on solid financial footing, retirements may come at you all at once.

Record that tribal knowledge. Understand what millennials want and be ready for this paradigm shift. We’re on the cusp of a significant turnover in the power industry workforce.  It can be a real opportunity. Don’t let it take you by surprise, Reder advised.



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