Managing Utility Change and Transformation During the Next Wave of Technological and Social Transformation
Senior Advisor and Practice Lead, Knowledge Transfer
By the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession in the spring of 2020, those of us in the utility sector could be considered “old pros” at navigating change and uncertainty. More technological, operational, and personnel changes have occurred in the industry over the last 10 years than the previous 50 combined. While other industries are now transitioning to the future in terms of who their workers will be and what they will be doing, the utility sector finds itself in an ideal position when it comes to its labor force. It is essential and relatively stable.
Continuity and change are twin themes of workforce development in the utility industry and a key idea underlying our research report, Reskilling the Utility Workforce: A Review of the Research and Recommendations for Implementation (Read the Full Report). Far from contradictory or conflicting, continuity and change are complementary, occurring in tandem and enabling the maturation and innovation of the industry. For instance, talk of an expected demographic apocalypse—with predictions of more than half of all utility engineers expected to retire during the 2010s—did not transpire as feared. Instead, utilities created opportunities for many of these seasoned veterans to stay on, while also recruiting from different facets and fields of engineering and the sciences—computer scientists, civil engineers, data analysts, etc.—to fill new and critical positions. Of course, hiring skilled staff has remained a continuous challenge throughout the industry’s transformation (and arguably its entire history), but the story of the last 10 years is as much about adaptation as it is anxiety.
I expect the same to be true of the coming “skills challenge”—that is, how utilities will ensure that the knowledge and capabilities of technical staff keep pace with the changes driving the industry. Skills, as our report lays out, are the “currency” of the 21st Century workforce. Essential skills like analytical thinking, effective customer service, and managing complexity grow with experience and can be combined, applied, and adapted to a range of situations and problems.
Here again, though, the dual principle of continuity and change holds true. Smart grid technologies and the data they generate undoubtedly require learning more rigorous analysis and modeling skills than typically provided through most formal coursework and/or training. At the same time, however, the core competencies and tasks of utility engineers are expected to remain largely the same for the next 5 years. Expect staff to need more efficient thinking and more effective communicating, while core engineering functions to remain the same.
Lessons learned from the most recent period of change in the industry suggest it is best to think of the current equilibrium in the workforce and workforce development as more of a running start than dodging a bullet. Changes to technology (e.g., continued automation of key operations, quantum computing, etc.), changes to policies, changes workforce composition and culture (i.e., more diversity, increased telecommuting)—all are likely to alter the efficacy of personnel and the ability of a utility to harness this potential. In other words, one wave of change may be over, but the next wave is approaching from the horizon. Whatever that transformation brings, expect fundamental changes to how utilities operate and to the work of personnel.
Almost uniquely, the industry has one of the rarest and most valuable assets on its side: Time. Our prediction of role and task stability through 2025 suggests utilities have ample bandwidth for adopting a sensible and sustainable approach to preparing the workforce of the future. Now is the time for setting goals and envisioning future HR/talent, employee engagement, and professional development systems (referred to as “articulation activities” in the report). Now is also the time to consider the extent to which existing systems and structures serve stakeholders (referred to as “alignment activities” in the report). A gradual, but robust, first year of action should include an articulation of goals, an assessment of current states, planning for future states, and buy-in and consensus-building across key utility stakeholders.
One way Quanta Technology helps utilities and power companies lay the foundation for meaningful change is by mapping what that change will be and how to get there. Below, we highlight three of those map activities:
- Map the gestalt: “Gestalt” is a term for looking a matter/subject holistically rather than in discrete parts. In the case of workforce transformation, we start with an overall vision that goes beyond individual activities or interventions in areas like workforce development, recruitment, and retention, or employee culture and engagement. Instead, we imagine how supporting elements of all relevant areas will lead to desired outcomes. For example, Commonwealth Edison’s (ComEd) desire to foster a “culture of curiosity” led us to develop a roadmap addressing engineer professional development as well as collaboration and retention procedures.
- Map skills: Accurately predicting what your technical staff will need to know is critical to adapting existing and future resources to support personnel development. We start by mapping the knowledge in your organization and then comparing this to what is necessary for current and planned strategies. We create articulations of existing and needed competencies and functions, and then identify areas where these benchmarks can be addressed and integrated (i.e., training, individual development plans). For instance, at ComEd we worked with managers to create “Engineer of the Future” benchmarks. This included knowledge and skill standards at the organizational, department, and individual specialization levels that could training and certification efforts for the next 5-10 years.
- Map the transformation journey: Knowing the gestalt and the kind of personnel it will take to get there enables a company to sequence the change process, identify who will be involved and what activities are needed, and determine when and how these actions will be implemented, assessed, and sustained. When we worked with Southern Company, we devised 5-10 year “roadmaps” for operational transformations and corresponding workforce development shifts, with the latter mapped to the implementation demands of initiatives.
For more information, I encourage you to read the full report (Read the Full Report) and to check out our white paper on workforce transformation, Powering the Utility of the Future (Read the White Paper). You can also reach out to me directly at [email protected]..
 World Economic Forum. (2019.) Strategies for the new economy: Skills as the currency of the labour market. https://www.weforum.org/whitepapers/strategies-for-the-new-economy-skills-as-the-currency-of-the-labour-market
 World Economic Forum. (2018). The future of jobs report 2018. World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland.