Aging Workers Won't Leave Utilities in the Dark

Joe Kovacs | Dec 22, 2009

The utility industry is getting older. By some estimates, nearly half of today's workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next decade. Years of hard-won knowledge seemed doomed to disappear just as utilities are implementing smart grid initiatives and benefiting from improved data collection and opportunities for advanced customer communications and energy efficiency. Is this the perfect storm? Are veteran utility leaders dreaming about golf courses and easy chairs rather than smart grid technologies just when their experience is most needed? Philadelphia-based PECO Energy, which serves approximately 2 million electric and natural gas customers in southeastern Pennsylvania, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) in California don't think so.

PECO's Perspective

Rich Cornforth, manager of investment strategy, PECO Energy, explained that industry veterans remain invested in improving utility operations. "Our veterans want to figure out what system improvements can be made by leveraging new technologies," he said. "Smart grid capabilities challenge our strategic thinkers to investigate the products and vendors that can make us viable for years to come."

And when these leaders retire? PECO Energy retains knowledge by documenting everything. "We record policies, procedures, design practices, lessons learned, best practices, everything we believe creates an effective, high-performance utility," Cornforth said. "This not only allows us to capture veterans' valuable knowledge, but also what younger workers must learn. These days, the trend is not to dedicate your career to one employer, so we ensure that what our people learn stays with us."

Cornforth said different generations of workers can solve problems collaboratively. "The smart grid will help us understand customers' consumption and help customers manage usage," he explained. "Power consumption has increased with the number of home appliances and new technology -- like keeping all of our handheld devices charged, our laptops and similar devices. Younger workers are part of this culture of using technology. With their insights into today's consumers, they may be able to better understand behavior, and how we can promote smarter energy usage and develop a strategic smart grid vision."

SMUD's Perspective

But if, at PECO Energy, aging workers are keeping abreast of new technologies, at SMUD, the excitement surrounding smart grid is actually encouraging them to stay in the game. "Colleagues tell me they want to push back retirement to participate in creating a smarter utility future," said Erik Krause, senior project manager for SMUD's smart grid initiative.

In October, SMUD began deploying more than 600,000 smart meters among residential and commercial customers, including throughout Sacramento. Krause credits an extended planning phase for the chance to build relationships among stakeholders. "We don't worry too much about an aging workforce," he said. "Our team is diverse, and we don't seem to be as affected by the generational trend of moving from place to place. Younger workers are learning from mentors and we feel comfortable knowing that they will make long-lasting contributions here."

His colleague, Mike Wirsch, human resources services manager, agrees. Wirsch has been with SMUD for 17 years and has held several positions. In anticipation of a utility industry redefined by smart grid, he participates on a committee to figure out what utility jobs will exist in the future and how SMUD can prepare for them. "It is difficult to talk about the aging workforce without discussing the rest of SMUD," he said. "We are a strong and cohesive unit."

For PECO Energy and SMUD, an aging workforce holds few challenges for the future of the smart grid. A culture of loyalty, effective planning and an ability to bring together the benefits of veterans and new workers creates a great cocktail for ensuring knowledge doesn't disappear and utilities aren't left in the dark.

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Intelligent Utility magazine is the new, thought-leading publication on how to successfully deliver information-enabled energy. This article originally appeared in the November/December 2009 issue.

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Yes, I very much agree with the observation in the article. Experience of aging workforce is backbone for utilities.This is more pertinent when in the step towards infusing technologogy, the fundamental of electrical engineering should not be undermine. Investment in the basic hardware should not be compromise in any case. This is more pertinent for those countries where existing infrastructures are below norms.
manoj adhikary

This article seems to be about two things - an aging workforce, and smart grids (although I see the link). Addressing the former only, I'm a bit disturbed by the view that recording everything is equivalent to ensuring that "...what our people learn stays with us." I think it very likely that, first, the essence of experience is not easily captured and recording "everything" will not capture it (even in "lessons learned"), and second, even if it were to do so, it is very likely that it will sit in a box/on a hard drive and not be assimilated by the next generation. Even were they to read it, it's not the same as having done it.

Capturing knowledge and experience is a laudable aim, and I'm not saying that trying is pointless. But my experience(!) is that a lot of effort is expended in trying, but the next generation are not minded to read a lot of stuff; they are too busy doing (and learning through experience) and often disregard others' experience as out of date anyway. It was ever thus. South Sea Bubble, 1929 stock market crash, dot com boom, recent financial crisis, etc., to take an example from another industry. The world won't end; we won't be sitting around in the dark (much). But I suspect that the lessons will be relearned through doing it all again.

I think I'm surprised at the naivete of thinking that recording everything will retain knowledge. Information, yes, but that's not knowledge.

Note, I understand it's not Joe Kovacs saying this. I'm interested in his choice not to challenge or comment on the suggestions, though.

As a principal of a management consulting company in the energy/utility sector, I'm finding a large number of newly retired utility workers are available and receptive to doing consulting work. I created an extensive list of blue collar and white collar workers that are available for assignment in various parts of the country.