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Renewing the utility workforce for renewable energy realities

By James McClelland

As much as renewable energy supporters lauded California Gov. Jerry Brown for signing into law a measure requiring the state to produce 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045, the reaction from some of the state's biggest utilities was decidedly lukewarm.

Southern California Edison was among the utilities to express concerns about the law saddling consumers with higher electricity prices. In a statement noting that his company was among those pushing the state to "explore more reliable, cost-efficient, and effective approaches" than the mandates included in Senate Bill 100, Pedro Pizarro, president and CEO of SoCal Edison parent Edison International, eyed the work that lies ahead to comply with the new requirements, saying: "The focus now shifts to efficiently and cost-effectively integrating renewables, non-carbon emitting power sources, and potentially large amounts of energy storage with the state's existing grid."

What Pizarro did not mention in his comments was the measure's likely impact on the workforce and the talent needs of utilities in the state as they transition to a renewable future. The ascendance of renewables highlights two longstanding challenges that utilities face as they try to adapt in an ever-shifting competitive and regulatory landscape:

1. Attracting talented workers. The talent squeeze is real, and not just for the utility sector. Forty-six percent of U.S. employers report difficulty filling jobs, according to the ManpowerGroup 2018 Talent Shortage Survey. In the U.S. energy sector, meanwhile, 70 percent of employers report difficulty hiring qualified workers over the last 12 months, according to a recent survey by Energy Futures Initiative (EFI).

2. Getting the graying utility workforce to buy into the renewables movement. And getting them to embrace re-skilling for new positions in renewables-focused aspects of the utility business. With one-third (33 percent) of current utility employees over age 53 and 19 percent under age 32, according to the Center for Workforce Development, the roots of the utility workforce are in an analog past.

Demand for skilled workers in America's renewable energy sector is surging. Wind energy firms employed some 107,000 workers in the U.S. in 2017, up about six percent from the year prior, according to EFI, while growth in the smaller bioenergy segment was 55 percent.

Developments such as the new mandates in California only increase the sense of urgency for utilities to replenish and re-skill an aging workforce to meet the new talent demands that accompany an increasingly renewables-focused business. That challenge carries so much strategic import that the talent recruitment firm EASi terms it "the most significant challenge facing the [utility] industry today."

With the help of a new breed of digital technologies, utilities have the means to meet that challenge. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Automate and optimize across the enterprise to operate more efficiently and free employees for higher-value pursuits , such as retooling utility systems for a greater reliance on renewables. This process is well underway, as utilities invest in digital tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and machine learning that enable them to automate tasks once handled by humans, so they run leaner. This also liberates members of the workforce from mundane tasks so they can be deployed to higher-value work. This type of work can be more appealing to the talent a utility is looking to attract and retain, particularly if it involves tools like AI and blockchain.
  • Build an organization whose digital appeal helps to attract and retain talent. There's a good reason so much top young talent is flocking to tech companies. It's not just flexible work arrangements and catered lunches. This is about companies and their HR departments devising an actual workforce strategy to make working on utility industry renewable energy initiatives appealing to the digital generation. As part of that strategy, it behooves utility companies to advertise to potential hires (and to people they already have in-house) the opportunity to apply their skills to some of the exciting renewable-focused initiatives. The opportunity to work in emerging areas such as integration of distributed energy resources (DER), including behind-the-meter sources such as rooftop solar and remote energy storage, into the smart power grid, can be a magnet for talent.
  • Invest in internal programs that give existing employees appealing opportunities to re-skill and redeploy. Utility companies also need to explore new ways to maximize the talent they already have at hand. By focusing on re-skilling workers, utilities give themselves an internal talent resource as a complement to their hiring efforts. For these programs to succeed, it's important that utilities find internal champions-employees whose willingness to embrace re-skilling for a digital enterprise motivates their peers. Building tangible incentives into the effort likely will help.
  • Support recruitment, development, and re-skilling initiatives with a robust talent management solution where onboarding, training, management, and other functions can be quarterbacked from a single digital platform. This enables an organization to understand the impact of talent on multiple levels.

By taking steps like these now, utilities can build a workforce equipped to lead them into an energy future that seems destined to look much like the one taking shape in California.

James McClelland is senior global marketing director of SAP's energy & utility industry vertical
(https://www.sap.com/industries/energy-utilities.html). He is based in Plano, Texas.