Maintaining The Electric 
Utility Workforce

According to Richard Kim, energy sector leader of Korn Ferry Futurestep (a division of Korn Ferry executive search firm), the biggest challenges for electric utilities these days are aging infrastructure and an aging workforce.

“By most estimates, 50 percent of the workforce will be or are retirement-eligible within the next five years,” he said.

As such, a pressing industry issue is attracting, developing and retaining a new generation of employees.

“The traditional utility salary structure typically pays less for tech-savvy engineers than other industries,” Kim said.

As he sees it, there is a need to develop technical talent to manage all of the changes that will affect the industry: smart grid, smart meter, commercially viable renewable energy, cybersecurity, new demand-side management tools, data gathering and analytics tools and more. In addition, the increasing need for high-tech workers and engineers with business and commercial acumen will be a constant challenge.

“There is a real need for workers with high learning agility, those who can quickly adapt to the ever-changing landscape of restructuring, new technology, increasing competition, restrictive regulations, commodity volatility,” Kim said. 

While the industry faces falling workforce numbers and workforce development challenges, Kim said there are a couple of bright spots. One is that many utilities have bought themselves some extra time as workers have remained in their jobs longer than normal due to the diminished values of their 401(k) plans after the 2009 recession.

Also, the industry has done an excellent job of succession planning for senior executive leadership teams.

What can electric utilities do to address workforce challenges? First, they should consider revamping compensation structures and their corporate images to attract and retain technical talent. Second, utilities must reach out to potential employees even earlier than they currently do. For example, PowerPathway, a San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. program, is a collaboration among local colleges, the public workforce development system and IBEW Local No. 1245, designed to enlarge the talent pool of qualified candidates for entry-level opportunities.

“Shell and ExxonMobil have a highly defined program for recruiting, onboarding, developing and retaining talent to become lifers within their companies,” Kim said.

Korn Ferry Futurestep does not encourage companies to react by filling every position made available through retirement, but rather implement a disciplined workforce plan that defines what the business will need in the future and plan accordingly. 

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