When we’re 65... or 22

Older + wiser- Aging workers won't leave utilities in the dark

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine November/December 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 / seem 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 a 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.


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."


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 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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