SI Review: January/February 2013

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Expert’s Corner

Skills Shortage

Providing workers for the electrical utility sector can be lucrative

By Fred Winstead

The skills shortage in some of the most technical industries across the country has been well-documented, as companies struggle to locate and hire professionals who are completely qualified to fill a role.

At the same time, as technology continues to improve, the necessary skill sets become increasingly technical, increasing in complexity, making it difficult for older, more experienced workers to stay ahead of the curve.

One of the clearest examples of this issue can be seen within the electrical utility sector, which employs technicians, engineers, project managers and other highly skilled workers. Companies in this sector have had a very difficult time finding electrical engineers, for instance, who can fulfill roles that include operating and maintaining power plants and substations.

In this case, however, the problem is not limited to the more experienced of the workforce falling behind in technical skills. The number of students seeking engineering degrees has dwindled, providing a smaller candidate population leaving the sector with the challenge of offering financially competitive packages, in addition to trying to retain their younger workers for longer than four or five years.

The skills shortage within electrical utilities is particularly evident in Florida, where companies have been engaged in poaching talent from competitors, according to the Palm Beach Post. Salary ranks as a major concern when it comes to poaching talent, as companies have to be competitive if they want to retain them.

Hiring Retirees

Higher salaries should not be the only way to help an energy company identify and attract qualified, skilled workers, however. Ron Hetrick, director of market research at Allegis Group Services, wrote in his recent whitepaper, “Using Market Analytics To Revolutionize Your Talent Acquisition and Management Strategy,” that it can be helpful to shake things up and look outside the box when it comes to acquiring and retaining top talent.

To do this, Hetrick suggests using every possible piece of available data to your advantage, evaluating regional, industry-specific and even global trends. For the energy — and more specifically the electrical utility — industry, this includes examining competitors, understanding their strengths and weaknesses and taking advantage where one can.

One specific workforce management strategy that can be taken advantage of within electric utilities is contracting with more experienced professionals, including those in semi-retirement. This can be an attractive option for baby boomers seeking work for just part of the year.

These individuals not only possess the skills you are looking for but they can also serve as a valuable resource when it comes to mentoring and managing younger, less experienced employees.

Different Strategies

There are a number of other actions utilities can take to maintain as strong a workforce as possible at all times. Many, for instance, recruit from outside the country. Though effective in many cases, this has its limitations. One specific challenge is H-1B visa restrictions that could significantly reduce a talent pool.

Having an intern program is also an effective way to generate a steady pipeline of workers who become well-versed in the different roles within the company. As with all intern programs, this is also beneficial for introducing prospective employees to the company’s culture and allowing them to demonstrate that they can fit in.

Often, utilities companies go a step further by donating funds to the electrical engineering programs of local colleges, building a mutual relationship with the school and ultimately attracting new graduates. However, even in these cases, employee retention remains a challenge due to salary demands down the road.

Thus, while it’s clear that a shrinking talent pool is creating a skills gap in the energy sector — specifically in utilities — there are a number of strategies companies can employ to attract talent. The idea is to plan, organize and work in advance so staffing firms are ahead of the curve and able to meet the demands of clients in the electrical utility sector.

Fred Winstead is vice president of Human Capital Solutions at Allegis Group Services. He can be reached at fwinstea@allegisgroupservices.com.

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