Opportunity Ahead: The Aging Workforce

Conventional thinking has it that the utility industry’s aging workforce represents a critical problem demanding a call to arms. But is an aging workforce really just a human resources dilemma? Or can it be viewed more broadly as a window through which utilities can examine ways to foster positive change for the future of their organizations? When viewed in this light, the exit of a large cohort of skilled workers may represent the most significant opportunity a utility will ever confront – one that could fundamentally alter the way it does business and upgrades financial performance.

At most utilities, little or no opportunity exists for significant revenue growth (a situation that’s persisted for some time) at the same time that personnel-related expenses have continued to increase and squeeze profit margins. To achieve the annual earnings improvement targets of 10 to 15 percent that stakeholders have come to expect, utilities have had no alternative but to reduce ongoing operational expenses dramatically – and often that’s meant cutting staff.

But the days of dramatic expense cuts based on typical cost reduction strategies are all but over. With nearly a third of the industry eligible to retire today, further personnel cuts aren’t warranted. Utilities are now confronted with a unique opportunity to make business improvements to reduce future costs. One approach involves using innovative technology to:

  • Lessen headcount requirements and make better use of reduced staffs;
  • Capture the knowledge base of skilled workers before they depart the workforce;
  • Reduce the number of people required to carry out a task by improving data access and communications among operating units;
  • Emphasize availability and use of key skills (rather than number of personnel);
  • Create true “best practices” (rather than continue to rely on “status quo practices”); and
  • Develop a “digital organization” that excites and retains new hires.

The utilities that will be successful in the future – the high-performance utilities – won’t hire their way to success. After all, there will be fewer skilled workers available for hire; recruitment will remain costly; and ongoing personnel-related expenses will continue to escalate. Instead, the high-performance utility will institutionalize its key procedures and business processes (by capturing existing employee knowledge) and exploit documented best practices before employees fly out the door.

Forward-looking utilities must invest in strategic technology, using a variety of partner models to meet their requirements. Technology solutions that solve localized issues will not address the future. Solutions that are able to look at a utility horizontally – as an organization with many parts that need to perform as a single entity – will serve as an important means of dealing with the disappearing workforce.

WHAT ARE UTILITIES LOSING … AND GAINING?

The imminent loss of critical skills and knowledge base caused by an aging workforce approaching retirement represents a demographic tsunami – a force unprecedented in business history. During the next five to 10 years, many utilities will lose as much as 50 percent of their current workforce to retirement. Clerical and administrative staff, as well as field technicians, managers and supervisors, engineers, IT personnel and business executives will all be part of the retirement wave.

The effect of utility workforce retirement is more profound than simple personnel turnover, because it represents a loss of critical knowledge. This knowledge base embodies the art of the organization – not just the information documented in manuals, maps, procedures and databases but also the organization’s culture and attitudes.

As younger workers replace an aging and departing workforce, utilities could witness the fracture of the motivational belief system that once bound the workforce. To meet the utility’s objectives, new workers need to have access to the expertise and knowledge of prior generations of workers. They can then build on this knowledge with their own experiences, helping the utility achieve a new and positive culture for success.

CONVENTIONAL SOLUTIONS

Industry literature suggests a number of solutions to the aging utility workforce problem:

  • Long-term staffing plans;
  • Partnerships with universities and community colleges;
  • Continuing education and training programs;
  • Active involvement in industry organizations; and
  • Internal knowledge sharing programs.

Each of these approaches plays a role in the solution, but collectively they still fall short of truly lessening the impact of the loss of half (or more) of a utility’s workforce. To wit: the number of students enrolled in college math and science programs (with the exception of computer and information science) continues to decline. And in the last 15 years, colleges and universities have seen a 50 percent decline in the number of graduating engineers (one of many skill sets a utility requires). All of which means that as utilities lose their skilled workers, they will not be able to replace those skills by drawing from the current labor pool. Solutions other than hiring programs will be needed to bridge the gap between skills lost and skills needed.

THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

Much of the technology utilities have implemented over the past five to 10 years has taken the form of “point” software solutions. By solving specific and limited problems, this software has tended to reinforce status quo business practices rather than enable innovation or better problem solving.

In many utilities, status quo means a vertical organization – a group of departmental silos that define the utility’s corporate structure. In a vertical structure, each group or department operates as a somewhat isolated entity, and each group “owns” the work to which it is assigned. But the manner in which utilities conduct business is comprised of horizontal processes spanning the office and the field – processes that are driven by the customer, whether commercial, industrial or residential.

Thus, vertical organizations often inhibit the type of change that can reduce headcount requirements and ensure better communication between remaining personnel. But changes that help flatten an organization horizontally – so that operations and procedures are viewed from end to end – can streamline business processes to improve handoffs between job roles and eliminate time-consuming and labor-intensive administration steps.

In the future, high-performance utilities will of necessity implement horizontal business process solutions that involve multiple systems spanning former organizational silos such as customer service and distribution operations. Horizontal solutions represent a quantum change in project complexity that will stretch many utilities’ internal organizations and define the systems integration market in the future.

The major opportunity offered by an integrated, horizontal solution lies in the creation of a strategic technology platform that offers the benefits of positive change and value creation. Such changes will be critical in supporting a utility as it undergoes workforce attrition and cultural evolution due to workforce retirements. The following represent some of the opportunities for change that high-performance utilities should be reviewing.

Business Process Change Opportunities

The term best practices has sometimes been defined as a generic methodology or a detailed scripting of events rather than an organized, documented view of the preferred and streamlined way to carry out a particular procedure. Many major technology initiatives and systems implementations have failed to deliver value to the utility because the true “best” practice is never defined, and therefore the transformation of the business process never occurs. The pressure to reduce costs and the rush to adopt scripts of existing procedures are the primary reasons for this disappointment.

The high-performance utility of the future, then, must commit to accurately defined best practices and a program of continuous process improvement. Such programs reduce costs by simplifying and standardizing business processes, eliminating paperwork and redundant data, reducing personnel interface points and viewing a utility’s operations from office to field as a single continuum. A strong strategic technology platform can support the capture and reinforcement of these standards.

Design Engineering Opportunities

The average investor-owned utility in North America has more than 50 design engineers architecting construction work undertaken by the utility. The design of such work involves significant systems support, including a geographic information system (GIS) and a graphical work design interface that links the GIS to a work management system.

Much of the construction work and underlying design work undertaken by utilities is repetitive. This type of repetitive work – particularly for light or medium construction activities – lends itself to design templates. In fact, design templates could accommodate as much as 80 percent of the design engineering workload. The development of a best practice based on standard designs for discrete types of work (and institutionalizing a standard design as a replicable template for the engineering department) can reduce a utility’s dependence on an increasingly limited supply of talented engineering labor.

Scheduling and Dispatching Opportunities

The average investor-owned utility (IOU) in North America has more than 700 field crews serving trouble response, customer service, maintenance and construction activities. Although job function definitions and responsibilities vary among utilities, the roles that manage the deployment of field crews may be defined as 1) schedulers; 2) dispatchers; 3) administrative personnel; and 4) field supervisors. All of these individuals may actively schedule or dispatch the field workforce, even within the same utility.

The same average IOU also has as many as 60 full-time employees (approximately one for every 12 field crews) involved in scheduling, dispatching, monitoring and providing administrative support to the field workforce. The staff handling these tasks is often functionally, organizationally and geographically dispersed – thanks largely to the point software mobile applications that mirror the organizational silos that acquired the applications. Typically, each piece of software addresses one job type: emergencies, customer service, maintenance or construction. Accordingly, each department employs multiple staff to schedule and/or dispatch each type of job.

This kind of environment spells opportunity for utilities facing shrinking workforces, since a single scheduling and dispatching technology can have immense cost-reduction implications (including reducing redundant job roles.)

The scheduling of field personnel can also be worked into a single dispatch strategy. Utilities need a unified method of work allocation – a kind of utility command and control center for scheduling and dispatching all work. The right strategic technology platform incorporates significant business intelligence, understands job dependencies, employs least-cost routing and continually provides the user with an optimized schedule throughout the workday. As the scheduling software assumes more of the scheduling responsibility, the 60 full-time employees formerly required by an average utility become unnecessary, thereby eliminating a major staffing concern.

Wireless Opportunities

For the last two years in North America, utilities have issued more RFPs for mobile workforce management than any other application domain. All of the top 100 North American IOUs employ some form of mobile deployment. However, these applications are point software solutions that address one job type, such as trouble reporting; they do not currently support a horizontal dispatching and scheduling function. Furthermore, many utilities lack an overarching, dedicated wireless strategy to fully mobilize the workforce.

Utilities require a plug-and-play wireless communications architecture that 1) manages the fl ow of data between office and field; 2) maximizes the bandwidth and throughput of existing utility RF radio, wire line and wireless networks; 3) assigns priorities to time-sensitive data; and 4) provides least-cost routing (network choice). This represents a complex undertaking – and one that no utility has yet mastered. There is no generic plug-and-play platform that manages field workforces in this way. Indeed, a universal communications platform (dispatch) that manages all types of work has been the holy grail of the network connectivity business. No utility has this capability today.

Once it is achieved, however, a universal architecture will allow the utility to plug-and-play back-office and mobile applications to broaden the footprint of work conducted wirelessly in the field. A universal mobile application controller that manages all types of work will power the future of mobile computing for the industry – but no utility has this capability today. In addition to application and network independence, the utility’s wireless enterprise strategy must accommodate the management of multiple field devices, and the supporting server and communications hardware/middleware environment.

An integrated universal communications platform must be viewed as the next technology that will enable utilities to lessen their dependence on headcount. The technologies that support such a platform are being created now; in order to blunt the impact of a disappearing workforce, high-performance utilities need to begin partnering with systems integrators that can bring these technologies to the table.

THE FUTURE OF TECHNOLOGY: SOLUTION OPTIMIZATION

The next significant strategic technologies implemented by utilities will be those that optimize solutions and processes. These systems will help the utility institutionalize the knowledge of seasoned employees and incorporate that knowledge into documented, sustainable best practices. In addition, new strategic technologies will help the utility evolve best practices over time through a program of continuous process improvement. Furthermore, these new technologies will provide the utility with ways to most effectively use both new and existing applications to perform work across the entire horizontal utility organization.

Instead of tactically buying enabling technology such as software, utilities will strategically partner with organizations that can deliver technology that creates value within the utility. Utilities will increasingly seek partners who own the business result, not simply the process or the IT infrastructure. Such partners will share utility risk and reward in a program of continuous process improvement, as they and the utility constantly refine and optimize solutions.

CONCLUSION

What will the high-performance utility look like in 10 years? For starters, it will have fewer employees and more new faces. It will have lost much of the culture it relied on to drive its business forward. But if it makes the right plans today, it will ultimately gain a new culture that takes advantage of the best of the old knowledge combined with the advantages of a new strategic technology platform. The new platform will unite all segments of utility operations within a single set of business goals. A workforce that is disappearing due to retirement doesn’t need to spell disaster if a utility takes steps now. These steps include applying conventional hiring approaches, embracing new technology and seeking out vendor partnerships to help unite and optimize the utility’s work processes.