The Wichita lineman may still have a job in the utility of the future, but he won't be driving alone down the main road
searching for an overload. He, or she, will be part of a mobile unit dispatched
by a computer that identified a problem as soon as it occurred and may be
called something like a "field technologist."
More to the point, that lineman won't be the iconic symbol for the power industry. More likely it will be a young man or woman with
a handheld computer ringing the doorbell of a suburban home to perform an
energy audit and design a customized energy use plan for the household.
The movement toward clean energy and smart grid technology, along with the emphasis on energy efficiency, is transforming the
utility industry from an engineering-centered enterprise to a
marketing-centered one and demanding whole new skill sets from its workforce.
More customer interaction is just the beginning. The new smart grid technology will also require utilities to expand their data
management capability, said David Sutherland, director of workforce strategy at
CH2M HILL, an engineering and consulting company.
"They will need more information systems people, more computer science people to write the algorithms for handling all the feedback from smart grid technology," he said.
The new workforce challenge comes just when utilities are already trying to cope with a looming turnover in personnel as
the baby boom generation comes of retirement age. U.S. Department of Energy
studies forecast that as much as 50 percent of the line workers at electrical
utilities will retire over the next five to 10 years.
The recent recession as well as efforts to phase retirement or even bring people back out of retirement to work are slowing down that process, Sutherland said, but utilities should be wary of complacency.
"I tell them it's like the tide going out just before the tsunami hits," he said. "When economic recovery comes, the staffing need will hit them that much harder."
In a sense, Sutherland suggests, the timing is fortuitous, because utilities are becoming more aware of the need for strategic
workforce management just as their need for it is expanding exponentially.
"It gives them the opportunity to convince the business leadership that
what got them to where they are won't get them to where they want to go,"
he said. "The world is changing around them."
Ralph Masiello at consulting firm KEMA agrees. "It's a cultural change for utilities," he said. "And it has to start in the executive suite."
Utilities will have to rethink their approach to their business. "How are they going to compete with Amazon or Land's End
to get the people to do data mining and come up with niche-of-one
services?" Masiello asked.
Distributive generation, for instance -- whereby a customer generates energy through photovoltaic solar cells or a wind turbine
and interacts with the grid both as supplier and consumer of electricity --
requires a whole new level of data management and customer service. "The
utility will no longer be the primary supplier of energy but will provide
reliability," Masiello said.
The other challenge, then, is to educate the state utility commissions that these are costs that need to be recovered in the rate
structure. No one will argue about field technology investments to upgrade
actual transmission, Masiello said, but will regulators accept that the savings
from this investment need to go into customer service applications?
The KEMA consultant cited an expression used often by his firm to capture the paradigm shift for utilities. "Old world -- the
ultimate customer is the regulator," he said. "New world -- the
ultimate regulator is the customer."
But change won't be easy, as utilities and regulators encounter obstacles that are not immediately visible.
In February, for example, a report from the Government Accountability Office, noted that a year after the stimulus act,
only 8 percent of the $5 billion allocated for weatherization had actually been
disbursed. State programs, on average, had completed less than 2 percent of the
targeted number of projects, even though this was a sector that was supposed to
provide an immediate stimulus to the economy.
DOE officials explained that one reason for the delay was the requirement that firms be compensated at prevailing market rates.
But that meant the Department of Labor had to conduct surveys to determine
these rates for the new requirement, creating delay and making the states
reluctant to embark on programs. Plus, in an economic stimulus catch-22, hiring
freezes and furloughs in key state offices as a result of their own budget
crises slowed states' ability to ramp up for the weatherization program.
A longer-term program in the stimulus package is $100 million set aside for workforce training in the electrical utility
industry, primarily for projects relating to smart grid jobs and careers. DOE
is still evaluating projects for funding.
To provide jobs for those newly trained workers, utilities will have to focus much more than before on workforce management,
said CH2M HILL's Sutherland. "HR will become a more strategic partner in
the business. Workforce planning will provide a blueprint of how to work toward
your objective and close whatever gaps you have."
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