FIGURE 5.1 Typical power industry employee age distribution. SOURCE: Ashworth (2006).
Faced with the choice of limited faculty resources, many department heads replace retiring power engineering faculty with faculty working in “hot” technology areas with strong industry funding. Often these industries provide endowed professorships and chairs to support faculty positions, which guarantees the retention of faculty in these technical areas. By contrast, there are few endowed professorships and virtually no fully endowed chairs designated in electric power engineering in universities in the United States.
The widespread perception that the utility industry does not offer career opportunities that are as exciting as other industries is increasingly untrue. Technology advances are altering the nature of the technologies being deployed in the industry. Going forward, the electric power industry will need increasingly more eclectic workers with skills to address digitization and the complexity of electronics, communications, computers, and highly integrated systems; the integration and operation of renewable energy sources; the operation of sophisticated chemical processes for providing clean coal and for controlling other pollutants and carbon dioxide; and perhaps a new generation of nuclear power. Much of this modernization will be driven by consumers” increasing demands for near-perfect reliability and quality of supply at a reasonable cost and by ever tighter environmental constraints.
As the workforce population declines through retirement, attrition, and down-sizing, a precipitous loss in institutional knowledge is occurring. This knowledge is often not documented, and frequently it is known only to a very few people. As today’s employees leave the workforce, this knowledge leaves with them. EPRI and others have worked to develop tools to capture this knowledge before it is lost.
New advanced training and worker support tools may help to provide tomorrow’s employees with the knowledge and skills they will need. For example, multimedia and virtual reality tools may help with training workers in critical areas and in high-hazard tasks such as live-line work. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is already using virtual reality tools in place of replica training simulators for team building and training with members in distributed locations. Improved haptics (the science of the sense of touch) is the most obvious requirement both in virtual reality and in multimedia in general, and there is a significant amount of research and development being done in this area.
Over the last 15 years, the response of the utility industry to a shrinking and overstressed workforce has been to turn increasingly to consultants and to outsourced engineering and information and communication technology service providers. This system is not sustainable. Many of the employees of consulting and engineering service companies are older and are therefore not a solution to the manpower needs 10 years hence. Furthermore, the majority of the experienced employees of these firms were trained in the electric utility industry as utility employees before joining service providers. The electric utility industry is no longer a training ground for skilled engineers and will not provide the increasing number of employees needed by service providers.
The conundrum is obvious. As engineers and other skilled workers retire, electric utility companies either will need ever more external support from consultants and engineering and information and communication technology service providers, or they will need to mount major new initiatives to recruit, train, and retain new workers in a competitive environment in which other power companies (and other industries) will be working vigorously to hire the same well-trained men and women.
All of this raises significant security concerns. As new employees charged with a range of responsibilities replace older workers with deep, specialized knowledge, the risk grows that people will make mistakes that compromise