The electric utility industry has a big problem on its hands. A great number of lineworkers born between the mid-1940s and the mid-1960s either have reached or are nearing retirement age. As these individuals age out of the workforce, the industry will continue to experience an inevitable downturn of knowledge and talent.
The proof is in the numbers. According to a February 2015 report in Power Engineering magazine (see www.power-eng.com/articles/npi/print/volume-8/issue-1/nucleus/who-will-replace-nuclear-power-s-aging-work-force.html), approximately 20 percent of workers at U.S. electric and natural gas utilities are currently eligible for retirement, and 40 percent will be eligible in the next five years. The report also cited U.S. Department of Labor statistics, which indicate that up to 50 percent of the country’s utility workforce will retire in the next five to 10 years.
The burning question is, who’s going to step in to replace these workers? And once they’re hired, what’s the best way to go about training them to safely perform their job tasks?
Technology could be instrumental in addressing both of these pressing issues. Over the past two decades, the Internet and other forms of technology have changed the way information is accessed, gathered, stored and used. The numbers vary from source to source, but just 20 years ago there were roughly 25,000 websites and only about 45 million Internet users. Today there are more than 3 billion Internet users and almost 1 billion websites worldwide.
With such vast amounts of information available at the touch of a button, the average 20-year-old entering today’s workforce thinks about information and education very differently than a baby boomer who is on the verge of retirement. People born between 1980 and 2000, commonly referred to as “millennials,” grew up with the Internet. The majority are always connected, thanks to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, and they are accustomed to accessing information on demand and in multiple formats. This is a trend that is only expected to grow. In fact, according to recent research from eMarketer (see www.emarketer.com/Article/2-Billion-Consumers-Worldwide-Smartphones-by-2016/1011694), the number of smartphone users worldwide will surpass 2 billion in 2016, representing more than a quarter of the global population. That number is expected to grow to a full one-third of the population by 2018.
Recruiting the Next Generation
As utility companies attempt to find new employees to fill the gaps left by retired workers, many of them are finding that traditional recruiting techniques are no longer as effective as they once were; they take too long and cost too much to produce qualified candidates. The recruitment problem is compounded by the massive number of career portals, including Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com, which further dilute the qualified candidate pool.
So, how do you recruit the next generation of utility workers without spending a fortune or peppering the multitude of job sites with employment listings, praying you’ll find qualified applicants? There is no magical formula, but the following options – when used in combination – make for an incredibly effective marketing and recruitment tool.
Millennials have been the pioneers of the social media movement, and the majority have some kind of social media presence. Today, websites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are being used to great effect by an increasing number of companies. This is now the norm, based on responses to an August 2014 Jobvite survey (see www.jobvite.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Jobvite_SocialRecruiting_Survey2014.pdf). Jobvite polled 1,855 recruiting and human resources professionals across a variety of industries, and 93 percent indicated they use or plan to use social media websites to support their recruiting efforts. Of those websites, LinkedIn is the frontrunner, being used by 94 percent of those professionals surveyed by Jobvite. Facebook and Twitter come in at a respectable second and third place at 66 percent and 52 percent, respectively. All three social media sites are being used to post job openings, but while LinkedIn is being used to actively search for candidates, employers turn to Facebook and Twitter to showcase their brands, which helps to build connections with applicants before direct contact is even made. An employer’s brand matters, particularly to millennials, and it’s important for companies to highlight company culture to attract top talent.
Keep in mind that building your online presence is about more than having a logo and providing a company history and contact information. You need to know your audience, be creative when posting and share interesting content. Not only will this attract the attention of current job seekers, but it will help to ensure top-of-mind awareness with future job seekers as well.
When considering whether to attend a traditional four-year university or seek education elsewhere, young people are actively researching the amount of debt they will incur versus their potential earnings in their targeted career. As a result of ever-rising college tuition costs, skilled trades are now seeing a slow but steady increase in interest, which means it is a perfect time for companies to participate in job fairs and related events at local community colleges, trade schools and high schools. Take the opportunity to meet and prescreen prospective entry-level employees and build personal connections with them. If a candidate isn’t yet ready to graduate, be sure to refer them to your website and social media pages to maintain the relationship until they have graduated.
Existing Industry Websites
Companies should also take advantage of industry-specific websites, forums and career centers, including the Utility Safety & Operations Career Center (http://usoln.careerwebsite.com) and Powerlineman.com. Millennials are keen researchers and will often research an industry thoroughly before even considering an entry-level position.
A Paradigm Shift
As more millennials join your organization, do you think they will relate to more traditional methods of delivering training? It’s not likely. The old paradigm of one source distributing knowledge to multiple students in a fixed location has shifted; one student can now gather information from multiple sources – including faculty, other students, podcasts, blogs, online databases, RSS feeds and wikis – at just about any time, anywhere. Mobile devices continue to replace the stationary desktops that have dominated training facilities for the past 30 years.
Safety and training managers need to take all of this into account when building new training programs or updating existing ones. Some traditional educational approaches are currently providing a mismatch between what is being taught and what the utility industry needs. Training that is based on active learning – in which students engage in activities related to the information being presented – has proven to be more effective in terms of knowledge retention than lecture-based training. So it makes sense that the use of skills proficiency testing and checklists should be an integral part of our industry.
In fact, evidence of skills proficiency is required by OSHA for many tasks performed by lineworkers. For instance, according to OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269(a)(2)(vii), “training shall establish employee proficiency in the work practices required by this section and shall introduce the procedures necessary for compliance with this section.” And 1910.269(a)(2)(viii) states that the “employer shall ensure that each employee has demonstrated proficiency in the work practices involved before that employee is considered as having completed the training required by paragraph (a)(2) of this section.”
Virtual Training Platforms
How do digital-based training methods support the proficiency requirements of our industry? While hands-on, on-the-job training will always be a critical component of lineworker education, video conferencing programs and online learning management systems can help to make the job of training employees and documenting their activities both easier and more effective.
Video conferencing programs, such as WebEx, GoToMeeting and Skype, give instructors a virtual presence across multiple locations while drastically reducing or eliminating travel time and related costs. Students can access training whether they are at home, in the office or at another site, provided they have Internet access. Another perk of using these conferencing programs is that they offer greater access to industry experts and mentors, who can provide job-specific education without having to be on site in the classroom or training yard.
Online learning management systems are also creating new ways of delivering training materials. These software applications deliver course materials in a manner that can supplement or, in some cases, replace the traditional instruction model. The best learning management systems not only deliver content and administer testing, but they also offer tracking and reporting on student progress throughout the course. This provides trainers with important information, such as the amount of time a learner has spent on a single unit, how a student is progressing toward individual objectives, whether or not a course video has been watched multiple times and even remedial training course recommendations.
Another benefit is that field performance reviews and skills proficiency testing and tracking become easier through the implementation of a high-quality learning management system. Checklists are no longer relegated to a crew foreman’s clipboard in the field or forgotten on a supervisor's desk. As long as there is an Internet or cellular connection, they can be accessed anywhere, filled out, signed by trainers and submitted to operations managers and human resources departments in real time. This is a tremendous advantage to operations managers and training and safety coordinators who oversee multiple locations, sometimes across state and international borders.
Continuing education is a mixed bag of emotions for safety and training managers and their employees. While it’s not mandated by law, it is an industry best practice to deliver this type of education to lineworkers, and it’s one area in which new technology continues to excel. For example, technical refresher training for less common jobs can be developed and then accessed by workers through an online learning management system, helping to ensure quality and safety at the work site. Annual compliance training and certification can also be more easily deployed and documented through the system. This is especially helpful for companies with multiple locations.
Top-notch learning management systems will provide content that is dynamic enough to engage employees and keep you informed of current best practices and industry changes. Keep this in mind if and when you are looking for a new learning management system to use within your organization.
Bridging the Gap
Think about this: Roughly 10 years ago, the Motorola Razr was one of the hottest cellphones on the market. Let’s say your company adopted the Razr as part of its training program and made sure every employee had one. Now it’s a decade later – are employees still being trained on how to use the Razr? It’s doubtful. The likelier scenario is that Razr training has been phased out and replaced by training that reflects the current use of smartphones like the iPhone.
Delivering consistently dynamic training is challenging. It’s much faster and easier to stick with the same programs rather than put time, money and effort into updating training. But both history and research have demonstrated that in order to be a safe, successful, sustainable company, you have to periodically modify your training in order to suit your company’s needs, adding and subtracting pieces of the program, including whole units or modules when necessary.
In closing, take advantage of new technology by applying it to your existing recruiting efforts and lineworker training programs. It can bridge the gap between generations and pass on essential knowledge and skills. Remember, however, that no amount of technology can replace face-to-face meetings and hands-on training. After all is said and done, hoisting an insulator string while perched on a pole is not the same as operating a mouse while watching a video tutorial. Even as technology evolves and offers the industry more ways to deliver information, employers must make sure that lineworkers receive the appropriate amount of on-the-job education for their safety and the safety of their co-workers and the public.
The picture is very telling, and I'm just wondering how many actually noticed it. Probably nobody except a trainer. I am usually anything except cynical, but please allow me just a little cynicism here to get my point across...Someone please use virtual means to explain to him that he has his SuperSqueeze on the wrong set of D-rings. His secondary lanyard and fall protection device need to be flipped. Someone please use virtual means to explain to him that it's in his best interest to keep the pressure as close to his hips as possible to relieve the stress off his back and prevent a strain through a back injury. Someone please use virtual means to take hold of one of his feet when he gets it in the wrong position to help get his attention.
I have been training linemen for 25 years now, and I am the first to utilize technology and I love it when it is effectively utilized. We even do web-based safety meetings and are very aggressive in areas of technology. Though correspondence training through computers has its place, it's place should never be to satisfy the 576 hours of related technical instruction that is required for lineman certification other than maybe a very small part of it. Sure, the department of labor recognizes it, but there is a reason that OSHA doesn't recognize Computer-based Training (CBT) in our industry in most situations. I have seen it fail time and time again. It is a rare apprentice that has the mental aptitude to utilize the material effectively into becoming an effective lineman. We don't even allow a computer in class because it distracts from the training at hand.
I could go on and on, but i will spare you. If you are not aware of OSHA's very clear stance on online training, you need to read their reply to Question #4 in the Q & A of the EEI settlement that came out a few months ago. If it is being used as actual training, and there is no instructor to ask questions to while reviewing the material, the material cannot be used. Period. If it is only used for an introduction to a class (which is what we use it for), then they just have to able to ask questions when they get to class. OSHA said that it is clear that classroom training and OJT have proven to be the most effective types of training, and that the CBT must be equal to the classroom style.
CBT can be a powerful tool for linemen that understand basics of the job and want information to go deeper in continuing education, so I agree with that. It can be very powerful for industry professionals such as safety coordinators or line supervisors. But for apprentices, particularly newbys, it's weak and very rare that I have seen it successful. No, we don't need more students in our program because our program is internal to cooperatives in our state only. These comments are to help people understand the huge advantage that a quality hands-on and classroom type of 4-year apprenticeship program has over the various formats proposed in this article. I did read the last paragraph, but the problem is that many linemen in the field giving the proposed OJT often don't understand things themselves, so they demonstrate and teach the apprentice with improper work methods and create more trouble. There must be a master trainer in place if we are going to maintain level ground, or better yet, actually improve the industry as the retirees continue to roll out the door.
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