The U.S. is facing the largest talent shortage since 2007.1 There’s no doubt you’ve likely heard—or uttered yourself— those same words in recent years. But is it true? What does it mean?
Skilled trade workers—those who form the backbone of the utilities industry—have been named the hardest workers to find globally for the fifth consecutive year.2 Manpower, a workforce solutions company, found that more than half of energy employers are challenged to find the right talent, and three out of four think the problem will worsen in the next five years. The reason seems to be a unique “double squeeze” of the workforce that is fueled by shortages of skilled workers at both entry and senior levels.
The report identifies three possible reasons for this double squeeze:
- A rapidly retiring workforce that is creating a shortage of experienced talent
- Advances in technology that are changing skill requirements
- Fewer job seekers interested and qualified in entry-level jobs.3
Rush to Retirement
More than 30 percent of utility employees are within five years of retirement. Some roles within the industry are experiencing an even bigger squeeze. One survey reports an expected attrition rate of around 50 percent among power industry engineers over the next five years.4 “The numbers— those entering the industry and those retiring— aren’t balancing out,” reads a recent report by Utility Dive.5
This shift is becoming apparent at utilities big and small. Just over a decade ago, New York’s National Grid linemen began retiring at a pace of between 35 and 50 per year (out of a 750 total).6 And utilities in Michigan are struggling so much to find enough workers that the state’s grid is in jeopardy, reports the Detroit News. A rise in lineman retirements following years of stagnant hiring is being cited as the culprit.
The Technology Factor
“The smart grid has certainly changed the utility workforce tremendously,” says Bill Pettit, Senior Operations Executive at Anixter. “For starters, the utility industry is hiring more IT roles, which is attractive for recent college graduates.”
But on the other side, Pettit points out, this has created a barrier for those with entry-level skills. For instance, smart meters are making entry-level meter reader positions obsolete. For decades, this role has been the entry point for utility workers with little experience. “Gain experience reading meters and you can move up to a technician role and so on,” he explains. “Now the baseline has changed. The entry point is higher.”
It seems few roles in the utilities industry these days are without the need for new-technology prowess. “Tools that were once manual are now battery operated,” Pettit adds. “Even bucket trucks, which are increasingly powered by advanced diesel engines, come with a technology learning curve to operate.”
Shortage of New Talent
The perceived talent gap among the next generation of utilities workers consists of two root factors – the first being the desire to do the job.
“While it’s true that these positions are more technical now and may attract younger workers for that reason, they are also some of the most physically demanding jobs on the planet. It’s hard to convince someone that the physical endurance needed for the job is worth it when they could otherwise be sitting comfortably at a desk somewhere else,” Pettit explains.
The other factor contributing to the talent gap is the ability of the newer generations to do the job. Some of the traditional paths to entry into utility work are disappearing and, at the same time, the number of potential linemen has diminished due to the simple fact that more young people are getting college degrees and seeking white-collar positions.
Manpower found that the top three reasons skilled trade worker shortages continue in industries like utilities are:
1. A lack of available applicants
2. A lack of experience
3. A lack of hard skills2
“There’s a 50 percent dropout rate in lineman apprentice programs right now,” Pettit concludes. “We’ll need to find a way to turn that around—to attract qualified workers and keep them engaged. It will be challenging but not impossible. It will require change.”