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Utilities' aging workforce: Then and now

Utilities' aging workforce: Then and now

In the late 70’s and early 80’s a majority of people who began work at local utilities did so with the expectation of starting and ending their career with the same company. It was stable with low risk and good benefits: Why Not?

Back in 2003, when I entered the industry as a recent college graduate, I noticed that a substantial number of employees were coming up on retirement after completing many years of service and a significant challenge was materializing: How will all of this valuable knowledge be transferred when the mass exit occurs? This difficult challenge had two distinct elements that needed to be addressed: knowledge management and recruiting. How were utilities planning to capture all of the valuable in-house knowledge that had been built up through many years of experience? Even if that knowledge is captured, what if there is no one to transition it to? What can utilities do to help recruit and attract a younger generation to come work in the “slower paced” environment that some utilities are traditionally known for?

As I continue to track the trends of the utility industry, I have seen companies begin to recognize and address this gap making significant changes in an effort to attract and retain younger workers. They are offering flexible work schedules, the ability to work remotely, competitive pay adjustments, and decent tuition reimbursement programs. Executive leadership has stepped up to be included in mentoring programs and incentives are being offered that have never been in place before.

On a recent trip back to Houston to visit my former boss, I was surprised to see that most of the so called “old timers” were gone and replaced with many new faces; ranging from recent college graduates to some with two or three years of industry experience. Utilities have also begun to shed their “slow pace” stigma as Smart Grid applications have boomed and are being implemented at an aggressive pace across the country. Many new recruits find the concept of aging infrastructure being converted into an automated, intelligent, and connected scheme as an intriguing and exciting way to launch a career, leading to more successful recruiting efforts. Other drawing points include the growth of green technologies such as solar along with a focus on sustainability and smart cities.

That brings me to the next point: Utilities now have new and fresh talent but are the right knowledge management and transition plans in place? Can decades of deep in-house knowledge and experience be successfully transferred in a relatively short period of time? I believe this is still a problem that utilities face and must work to remediate. Some questions that utilities need to consider include:

  • Is there a progressive ramp down/ramp up process in place that can effectively allow for knowledge transfer?
  • How are skillsets acquired and enhanced as newer talent comes in?
  • What is the plan to avoid a mass exit again in the future?
  • How can utilities continue to fill the resource pipeline to allow smoother transitions as promotions and moves are implemented?

West Monroe’s Human Capital Management team has worked with numerous clients over the last decade and can help them develop and implement best practices for managing this transition, including a specific focus on the Utility Workforce of the Future. Our efforts to help utilities successfully facilitate these changes have included strategic planning, process redesign, and the development of knowledge management frameworks that leverage tools and technology that help handle many administrative tasks freeing people up to focus their efforts in more interesting areas.

With the changes I have seen since first joining a utility, I remain optimistic that over the next several years utilities will continue to adapt strategies that help ensure successful transitions. I also have seen first-hand that the experience and tools West Monroe offers are a valuable resource for utilities as they face these issues.

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