Digitalisation within utilities and the accompanying advances in areas such as asset management are bringing a cultural shift in the DNA of utilities.
The need for field workers is reducing with for example, efficiencies of smart metering with the opportunity to obtain remote readings and advances such as predictive maintenance. But at the same time the need is growing for other skills such as data analytics – a shift from ‘hard hats’ and blue collar to white collar workers if you will.
How are utilities coping with this shift? Are they attracting the ‘brightest minds’ to work with blockchain or the next big thing? And can they compete with ‘sexy’ organisations such as Google and Apple?
The cultural challenge
Caspar Kaarlep, [now former] Head of Digital Network Technology at Estonian distribution operator Electrilevi, cites an example of a ‘cultural block’ as moving a technology from pilot to implementation.
“The lesson we learned is that investing in tools is easy but using them is hard,” he says.
Piloting teams tend to have deeper skills and more background in IT to prove the technology, but the regular workforce with its greater diversity isn’t able to implement the technology.
“We have had to rethink our approach to data science and the key challenge is to maintain the domain expertise in the analysis of the data.”
New roles and responsibilities
Jeroen Vergauwe, Partner - Energy, Infrastructure & Utilities at Deloitte Risk Advisory, concurs, saying that similarly this has been their experience in project implementation and it can lead to a lot of reluctance on the part of employees.
“New tools can change not only the responsibilities but also the roles and that is more disruptive, and we so need to build those capabilities with them.”
Karim Jawad, European Regional Sales Manager at Copperleaf, points out that alongside the new tools also there are new principles – such as ISO 55000 in the case of asset management – that can be adopted. But on top is the need for a platform to enable these to be rolled out immediately.
“What I’m hearing is the need to leverage on lessons learned from other utilities to lessen the cycle of getting up and running.”
Training the next generation employee
Clearly there are utilities successfully negotiating these challenges.
Says Annika Viklund, Senior Vice President of Sweden’s Vattenfall Distribution on the need to develop a more customer centric culture: “We all had to go through a skill change.”
In-work upskilling is one thing – and as Electrilevi’s Kaarlep points out, such training is both hard and time consuming – but what about preparing the next generation of employees for the sector?
Bringing a perspective from the United States, Dr Michael Webber, Deputy Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, which trains next generation energy professionals, says the energy sector needs to do more to promote its importance to society.
“Up and down the supply chain the industry is facing a recruiting problem as the wave of retirements hit and it needs to start now to get a pipeline of talent. People need to understand how important, impactful and exciting the industry is.”
The student perspective
Energy Institute students under Dr Webber’s tutelange highlight the range of skills, not only engineering, and the team work perspective that is apparent in the energy sector.
Student Kiana Carrillo and Eddie Martime, both from Houston had initially considered working in the petroleum industry, but an important aspect of their training has been exposure to industry professionals, which has opened up the sector to them.
“This has been a great opportunity for us,” says Martime.
Carrillo adds that such “non traditional teaching” with “hands on learning and exposure to what’s going on” is what other schools should offer to attract talent to the sector.
Clearly, when it comes to future employees, the energy sector must be the architect of its own future. With the radical transformation and mass adoption of cutting edge technologies it is an exciting place to be. Let’s spread the word.