A New Hiring Strategy for the Utilities Workforce

Need experienced utilities workers, especially engineers? Expert Maxim Castelino shares a workforce strategy that could help you find and grow more qualified talent.

From accommodating government regulations on renewable energy to modernizing the U.S. power grid, the utilities industry is going through a lot of changes. The most significant challenge is how to get the work done when the retiring workforce is coupled with a decline in available talent. Many utilities require additional support to work on new capital projects, and those projects are increasingly complex. This need is particularly acute with engineering and design, where the worker supply is greatly diminished.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy reports that the utilities industry will need 105,000 new workers by 2030 but predicts that “only 25,000 existing industry personnel are interested in filling those positions.”

Over the past 20 years, continued investments in the grid, increasing workload, technology advancements, regulatory changes including renewables mandates and the need for highly qualified personnel have created a perfect storm. The lack of new talent from the universities and the retirements of highly experienced subject matter experts highlight the need not only for succession planning, but also for knowledge management and transfer at a much more rapid rate than in the past.

As industry leaders develop plans for the future, they have to consider how they will position their companies for business transformation.

New Utilities Workers are Harder to Find

In recent years, fewer graduating engineers have chosen utilities as a focus, adding to the workforce complexities. Among those graduates, some may prefer to work in different geographical regions vs. the regions where utility companies operate, or view utilities as less technically challenging than other industries.

In addition, utilities are competing for a smaller pool of engineering grads with brand name companies in high-profile industries.

To define the scope of the issue: Utilities need a solution for their talent needs now as well as in the future. Workforce development, knowledge transfer and retention are critical. This requires a rethink of traditional talent development and acquisition methods.

Companies may try to build a pipeline by offering internships, especially for short-term, low-complexity assignments. But interns require a lot of supervision by more senior workers, which could actually result in a net reduction in productivity.

The Cost of Talent Development

Although utilities may prefer to hire experienced employees who can hit the ground running, the talent shortage means that those employees are even more difficult to find and expensive to secure.

The cost of a new employee — assume an annual salary of $60,000 as well as an additional 20 percent in costs of employment such as benefits, equipment, oversight, etc. — begins on day one. However, the employee being trained is likely only working at 20 percent productivity, becoming fully productive in year five. Utilities could spend upwards of seven to eight times the annual cost of employment in five years before realizing the benefits of full productivity. The full impact of these costs is compounded over the total number of hires.

A Solution in the Works

To combat these challenges, an accelerated talent apprenticeship program, similar to a medical school residency program, could be the key. With our long history in talent development, we have developed a full roster of experts in challenging and niche areas of competency that require advanced education and highly evolved analytical skills, making them well-qualified and experienced subject matter experts. New employees work under their supervision in an immersive environment, while also attending frequent learning sessions or tutorials where the application of knowledge and experience is reinforced.

The accelerated talent apprenticeship program has three basic components. First, we source the best candidates nationwide and screen them for their interest, aptitude and potential in engineering specifically for the utilities industry. Our new engineers then work closely with expert mentors who have extensive experience in the industry/utility to undergo industry, company and engineering disciplines-specific training and applications.

Second, they get hands-on experience in completing actual engineering projects, participating in site visits and interacting in real time with project engineers, managers and other functions required to complete a project. This focused development provides immersive learning, to compress five or six years of learning and development into two or three years. Lastly, we focus on developing the personal and leadership skills required to be successful and make an impact in the utilities industry of today into the future.

Using the previous example with a $60,000/year employee, this program would equate to nearly a 50 percent decrease in cost (over $162,000), in addition to reduced recruiting, hiring, onboarding and training costs per employee. The improved productivity and reduced costs are multiplied when you consider the number of employees needed.

Steady Progress that Adds Value

Employers have observed notable success in finding talent whose values and goals match our own. These candidates may receive a better income offer somewhere else, but they are more attracted to our entrepreneurial spirit, our feedback-rich culture and the ability to grow both professionally and personally throughout their entire careers.

Some new employees comprise the few at the middle level. They were looking for personal and professional growth in a new environment, and they desired the opportunity to face new challenges and advance their careers. Upon joining the apprenticeship program, they entered a supportive training environment that values their wants and needs, builds skills and empowers them as leaders and decision-makers while delivering concrete results.

There may still be a widespread decline in available, hirable engineers, but if more employers adopt this apprenticeship program over the next 10 years and take a pro-active approach to workforce planning, they will be able to reap the rewards of a committed and sustainable workforce for the future while narrowing the skills gap.

Want to learn more about strategies to hire in-demand engineers? Contact Actalent now.