Tackling the Skills Gap and Brain Drain with Training
Hiring managers in the energy sector can be heard across the country grumbling about the current situation: The national unemployment rate is 9.2 percent yet positions remain unfilled for months because of the lack of qualified candidates.
A new survey of more than 100 energy efficiency managers conducted by the Association of Energy Services Professionals (AESP) found that approximately 60 percent believe that there is a lack of talented workers for the field.
"Energy efficiency is a rapidly growing segment of the overall energy industry and we believe there is a clear lack of talent that is necessary to fill the positions that are open," said Meg Matt, president and CEO of AESP.
Although the demand for manual labor jobs is great, filling white-collar positions isn't easy, either. For example, there is a need for more utility employees to be knowledgeable about accounting practices for public utilities and our organization, The SNL Center for Financial Education, has struggled to find an instructor experienced in this field to contract.
Training can and should help address the electric utility industry's staffing issues. Faced with a growing need to find skilled workers, more utilities are indeed finding new ways to train workers.
Facing the "Skills Gap" and "Brain Drain"
The U.S. electric utility workforce faces not only a "skills gap" in potential hires but a large exit of experienced employees who will be retiring over the next few years. As much as 40 percent of the power sector's 400,000 workers across job categories will be eligible to retire by 2013, according to the Society of Human Resource Management.
"The `brain drain' is affecting every industry, not just the utility industry but I think that utilities are going to be among the hardest hit. And it's happening not just in engineering but in finance, accounting, and career fields across the board," said Michael Ruane, recruiting manager with Key Technical Solutions. Ruane has six years of recruitment experience in the energy sector.
"We have plenty of candidates that have the basic skills but because they do not meet every `bullet point' managers hold out to find candidates that match all desired qualifications, often resulting in delayed hiring or losing qualified candidates while waiting for that `right person,'" he said.
Training programs typically take a few weeks-not months-and many younger workers come up to speed quickly, particularly when it comes to technical materials, according to Ruane.
"A lot of companies no longer have pensions and other benefits that motivated people to stay loyal to one company. By paying a little more up front and doing a five-year career plan, companies are more likely to retain talent for 15 years or more. That's a lot cheaper than filling the same position every three or five years," Ruane said.
Training the Troops
To address the workforce shortage, a consortium of electric natural gas and nuclear utilities and their associations formed in 2006 The Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD) to help utilities work together to develop solutions. CEWD announced in July its Troops to Energy Jobs program, which is designed to create an accelerated transition for returning veterans into civilian jobs in the energy sector nationwide.
"The goal of the Troops to Energy Jobs program-working with five pilot electric companies-is to develop and perfect a robust national model for more quickly and effectively connecting this stream of qualified veterans to jobs that will be opening up in the energy sector," said Dominion Resources Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Farrell. "The extensive military training, strong work ethic and leadership skills endemic to success in the military make veterans highly desirable employees for energy companies."
In addition to Dominion, American Electric Power, Southern Co., PG&E and Pinnacle West/Arizona Public Service are participating in the program.
Work with Who You've Got
Another option that electric utilities should aggressively pursue: internal training.Training from within provides workers with a holistic view of how a corporation operates - something many employees lack today, Duke Energy Chairman, President and CEO Jim Rogers said in a March 2011 interview with SNL Energy:
"Our organizations are very `siloed' because we're a mature industry. Having skills that cut across the silos is very important, "Rogers said.
To develop skills that benefit both employees and power utilities, Rogers recommends what Duke Energy does with a select group of people: moving younger employees every 18 months to different divisions across the company. This would enable them to help build relationships and to understand the objectives and missions of different parts of the company.
Employees whose skills and knowledge are recognized, appreciated and utilized not only contribute more to their companies but they also recruit their talented friends who bring new and diverse problem-solving strategies as well, according to Simma Lieberman, "The Inclusionist" consultant, speaker and author.
Training programs are not, however, effective for all employees. It's important to target new hires and internal employees who will gain the most from learning new skills.
"The ones you want to train are those who have passion, are motivated and share the same values as the company. And passion should come first. You want to have someone who believes in what you're doing. Those are the employees who are most likely to stay and add value to the company," Lieberman said.
And if you know any passionate, experienced accounting instructors who specialize in the public utility sector, please let us know.
Jennifer Zajac is senior program manager with the SNL Center for Financial Education, a leading provider of sector-specific conferences and seminars for professionals focusing on the financial services, energy, real estate and media sectors. Zajac has 20 years of journalism experience and is currently a graduate student in the Global Energy Management program at the University of Colorado-Denver.