In this article:
- Learn how the employees within the power sector have changed over time
- Find out what is most likely to retain utility employees
- Understand how to better roll out a training program that works for all types of employees
When Rocky Sease started his career in the utility industry in the early 1980s, new hires knew exactly what to expect from the employer-employee relationship. In exchange for career-long job security and generous benefits, employees focused on pleasing their supervisors.
"It used to be that you just wanted to make the boss happy," said Sease, who is vice president, Industrial Skills at HSI, a company that develops and implements training programs for a wide range of industries, including the power sector. Today, the expectations of people coming into the utility business have changed dramatically. "Now people come into jobs expecting to understand and be comfortable in all aspects of their jobs and to know exactly where their careers are headed."
Sease said he believed the shift in expectations was a good thing. For one, employees who insist on career advancement are more open to learning new skills. This is important, given how much the power system is changing. But for utilities themselves, understanding and meaningfully addressing the expectations of employees entering the profession is an all-too-often overlooked strategic priority.
It's also critical because utilities face ferocious competition for talent from employers across the economy. "We work with hundreds of companies in the power sector, and we are seeing a lack of talented people interested in working at a utility in areas from electrical engineering to simple technician work at power plants," said Joshua Grant, a technical training specialist for HSI who focuses on power generation and electrical distribution and transmission. "A lot of that stems from the competitive market, and the fact kids coming out of school aren't thinking about the utility industry as providing a fulfilling and innovative career path."
Building employee careers with personalized training
In part, utility leaders need to better educate young people about the critical, innovative, and meaningful work taking place in the power sector today. Utilities will need to do a better job attracting new employees because 25 percent of the industry's workforce is expected to retire by 2023, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Utilities also need to understand why well-designed and implemented training programs are important to attracting, retaining, and developing the workforce it needs. However, fully leveraging the potential of training requires a fundamental shift in the concept, delivery, and prioritization of training.
While nuances will inevitably depend on a utility's culture and the specific career track an employee is on, successful training programs have some common elements. One is to develop and communicate a clear progression plan that lays out how an employee will advance in their career. "Nobody wants to be in a job where they have no direction or clear path for moving forward," Grant said.
Fortunately, established methodologies — including the systematic approach to training that is well established in the utility industry — can be used to tailor the kind of training program that will keep employees engaged and satisfied.
Developing that plan involves a job task analysis, which details the skills, tasks, and performance expectations an employee will have to meet at each career stage. A training program can then be designed to ensure employees develop and revisit the skills they require to do different jobs and clearly outline how workers will be evaluated and tested.
An important ingredient in developing a training program that simultaneously equips employees with the skills they need to move ahead in their careers while also keeping them motivated is to personalize it based on a worker's existing knowledge. "The best practice is to insert someone into a training program at the place that is appropriate for their level of expertise," Sease said. "One of the things that disappoints new trainees very quickly is putting them through things they already know."
Training tools for a new generation
Personalized training is about more than just the instruction content; it's also about how training is delivered. "No two people learn the same way," Grant said. "Some people love to sit in a classroom and take notes. Some want to learn by watching training on their phones. And some people need to get their hands on something and learn by actually doing."
Typically, some combination of classroom, online, and on-the-job instruction is the right approach. But when it comes to attracting and retaining younger employees, utilities need to take advantage of improved training technology. "You have to have a certain level of entertainment to keep people engaged, particularly some of the younger trainees who often lose focus if the training isn't fast-paced," Sease said.
For example, technology gives utilities the opportunity to put control room operators in situations that force them to make tough decisions about how to keep the lights on. For instance, using a simulator to mimic system conditions lets trainees navigate how to respond to a car crashing into a utility pole. "Some of the electrical lines will be down, and they have to figure out where the problem is," Sease said. "Keeping the lights on or getting them back on as quickly as possible is a good use for a simulator and is a good way to engage people in training."
Deploying advanced training technologies is also a way to communicate to prospective employees that a utility is a forward-looking, innovative place to work. "Utilities are aware of the expectations of new people coming into the field when it comes to technology," Sease said. "If people are enjoying their training and they're challenged and entertained and engaged, it's a powerful recruitment and retention tool."
No matter how you look at it, providing multiple types of training is imperative to continuing to grow and attract talent in the utility space. The technology and processes in the power sector have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Every company should expect that employees have changed as well. But developing an engaging, effective training plan will put utilities on the path for retaining talented employees.