Discussions lead by Power Industry specialists

The Next Generations

“HOW ARE WE GOING TO ASSURE THE CONTINUING DELIVERY OF SAFE, DEPENDABLE AND ECONOMICAL ELECTRICITY SUPPLIES TO MEET AN EVER GROWING DEMAND?”

An article by Russell Ray, Chief Editor of Power Engineering magazine (a leading US power industry publication), published in December 2014, noted that “Every sector of the energy industry is expected to lose a large share of its work force as millions of experienced professionals – baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 – become eligible for retirement over the next few years”. 

While this is not a new issue, with many highly knowledgeable and experienced people having already been “lost” from the industry over recent years (not only through retirement but also through redundancies, ill-health and for other reasons), the article certainly shines a spotlight on an issue which largely flies under the radar.

Ray went on to report that “the power sector will need more than 100,000 new skilled workers by 2018, to replace those retiring workers”, and asked the key questions:  “Is the power generation industry prepared to compete with other industries for a new generation of skilled workers?  What’s more, does the industry have a plan for training and knowledge sharing?”

The article was based on reports of research undertaken by a number of leading US-based agencies and, while we can reasonably note that the statements relate only to the US-of-A, there can be no doubt that this is a Global issue.

Ray noted that “There are about 78 million baby boomers in the US.  They represent 28 per cent of the US population, and 68 per cent of the existing workforce.” 

“About 40 per cent of the workforce at America’s electric and natural gas utilities will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.  About 20 per cent are eligible now.  Who’s going to replace them?”

If this is the situation in the US, then what is it like in the rest of our World?  Even accounting for regional variables, I believe that we share the same conundrum.  Arguably, we are moving from a relatively long period of employment stability, and rapidly into a future of disruption and instability. 

How are we going to assure the continuing delivery of safe, dependable and economical electricity supplies to meet an ever growing demand?

Other than accounting for numbers, and having the contingencies in place to meet the demand for solutions (including recruitment processes and training services, and the associated funding of these), we also need to consider at least one other critical factor – Generational Differences!

Demographers around the World have sorted us all into tidy generational categories (the BB’s, of course, followed by X, Y and Z, so far), and many claim that there are significant differences between each generation (other than age, of course).  If we accept what the demographers claim, then how does this inform us in terms of recruitment and training, and workplace and job design?

Over recent years, the power industry has pursued a campaign which seeks to reduce operating costs and improve productivity, with a primary focus on personnel (fewer staff, reduced tasks and responsibilities, expanded roles through multiskilling, limited training, lower qualification requirements, lower pay rates, and so on). 

While many of the baby boomer generation reacted in horror and sometimes anger to these imposed changes, and sometimes rightly so, how will the industry be perceived by the new generations?

On top of this question is the reality that a focus on “scheduled retirement” is too narrow, and that we need to also consider the numbers who leave the industry voluntarily (and prematurely), for a range of other reasons, and also on those who exit because of forced redundancies (and there have been many of these).

Further, how will the emerging generations respond to these “re-designed“ jobs and conditions (given their relative naivety in the field, and their perhaps different attitudes)?  Or, do we really need to undertake yet another “re-design” of the whole system?

Obviously, the situation regarding the loss of a significant number of highly-skilled and knowledgeable employees (at all levels and from a range of vocational strands), is real, and it is an issue which does demand immediate attention and action. 

But any response must also be informed by a much bigger question:  Whether or not the claimed generational differences are real, or not (and, if they are, whether they really matter, or not), is definitely a question which needs to be asked, answered and, if confirmed, then acted upon (and sooner rather than later). 

The answers must surely inform all aspects of work design and workforce planning, management and, most importantly, how we communicate and interact, now and into the future.  Our industry Forum aims to foster a constructive and well-informed contribution to our shared future, and we implore you to take an active interest and to make a valued contribution.

M. Cogitari

[The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by the Forum].