Graeme Jorgensen & Ed Bourcier
There exists a growing gap in the energy industry as the older generation of workers retires in increasing numbers. With them, they take decades of experience, understanding, and knowledge that may be lost if it can’t be passed down to newer generations.
Highlighted by Russell Ray, Chief Editor of Power Engineering magazine, in 2014, the issue was already quite clear: “Every sector of the energy industry is expected to lose a large share of its work force as millions of experienced professionals […] become eligible for retirement over the next few years.”
This was not a new issue in 2014, but little has been done to acknowledge or mitigate the problem since then. The industry has already lost many skilled and highly knowledgeable people since the article’s publishing, and the 2020 COVID pandemic only worked to exacerbate the problem. Still, the article shines a spotlight on an issue that largely flies under the radar.
In recent news, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) published a study examining the demand for wind energy workers in the US. The study estimates that from 2024 to 2030, the offshore wind energy industry will need an annual average of between 15,000 and 58,000 full-time workers. What does that demand look like across the entire US energy portfolio?
Ray asks “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?”
While industry training and knowledge management is a principle focus for Capstone Industrial Training Solutions (Capstone ITS), there is still a significant gap in the industry between the training needed and what’s available. While we can note that the data supporting the article relates specifically to the US, there can be no doubt that this is a global issue.
Circling back to the US, the article states that by 2019, 40 percent of the previous generation of electric and gas utility workers were eligible for retirement. It begs the question: Who’s going to replace them? And if this is the situation in the US, then what is it like in the rest of the world?
Even accounting for regional variables, the conundrum is the same. Arguably, we’re moving from a relatively long period of employment stability, and rapidly into a future of disruption and instability. How are we going to ensure the continuing delivery of safe, dependable, and economical electricity supplies to meet an ever-growing demand?
Leaning on 2016 article by the same Russell Ray, we find that “According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the power sector is the largest consumer of natural gas in the US on average.” It continues by saying that the power sector uses more natural gas than the industrial sector and both the residential and commercial building sectors. Is this wherein the solution lies?
A specialization towards natural gas could solve some of the generational gap given the additional resources being poured into the industry. However, this would only account for numbers. Ray’s questions concerning knowledge sharing and training remain relevant. It also doesn’t consider the generational differences that may factor into the issue.
Accepting that there are significant differences between generations, how can we tackle the issues considered above while tackling newer concerns of recruitment, training, and job design? After all, the power industry has gone all in on automation in the last few years. With the goal to reduce costs and improve outcomes through automation, it leaves little room to accommodate personnel new to the industry. Of course, automation delivers on many promises, including less staff, reduced tasks and responsibilities, expanded roles through multiskilling, reduced training, lower qualification requirements, and lower pay rates. But is this really the future-proofing the industry seems to think it is?
It’s likely that foolproof automation is nearly impossible. The resources required to achieve such automation are beyond the means of what’s available on the market, and even then, it wouldn’t take the human element entirely out of the equation. What’s needed to deal with the eventual failures in automation are people familiar with the computers and field devices used in the industry.
However, does this really reconcile the generational gap that currently exists? With many industry professionals begrudgingly accepting changes in structure and procedures, how will they react to changes in job design? Furthermore, will these changes really be beneficial in onboarding the necessary newcomers to the industry? If the proposed solution fails to accommodate either older or newer generations, then perhaps it’s no solution at all.
The situation regarding the loss of a substantial number of highly skilled and knowledgeable professionals is real, and it’s an issue that demands immediate attention and action. But any response must also be informed by a much bigger question: Are the claimed generational differences real or not, and if they are, do they really matter? This question needs to be asked, answered, and acted upon – sooner, rather than later.
The answer must inform all aspects of work design and workforce planning, management, and most importantly, how we communicate and interact, now and into the future. The answers should also clearly define a new and expanded set of human skills.
Finally, we need to recognize that technology alone can’t foster the complex systems thinking or the skills needed for the safe, efficient, and effective performance of the energy industry. While we’re feverishly searching for the answers, what is already disappearing out the door?
Jorgensen, G. (2016). Industry Insights: Anecdotes from the Front Line. Published by Energen Pty Ltd