Powering Strong Communities

Enabling a Tech-Driven Utility Workforce

The United Nations reports that digital technology has advanced more rapidly than any innovation in the history of the world, and those advances are streaming into the utility industry. From top to bottom, public power utilities have been buffeted and bolstered by new technology solutions, such as communications devices in the field to automated systems, but sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the changes — especially across the workforce.

Work at every level requires more advanced digital skills, and, increasingly, employees want to gain those skills, which can be significant in meeting the need.

“With today’s workforce, we are seeing a desire to transition from paper-based processes to digital-based processes. The ease of use that smartphones have ushered in over the last 15 years is now the expectation,” said Jonathan Jakub, manager of enterprise solutions at Lincoln Electric System in Nebraska, where leadership works hard to keep its 500 employees well versed in digital skills.

“I can make a haircut appointment online, see the wait time, be texted when I should leave for the salon — and then they keep information about the clipper they used for the next time. That is the sort of digital atmosphere we are working in and the sort of expectations our customers and employees have about technology and processes.”

It is not only these customer expectations for service, but also employee desires to advance and the efficiencies technology creates that mean utilities need to keep employees digitally literate, noted Jakub. It means public power utilities must acknowledge the potential problems, pinpoint the specific skills gaps, and commit resources to training and removing those gaps.

Defining Digital Literacy

“Digital literacy” considers both the range of interactions between employees and the growing array of digital functions they need. The definitions are almost as varied as the skills the phrase describes.

Researchers studying it define digital literacy as the ability to “use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create and communicate information” or an “awareness, attitude and ability to appropriately use and interact with digital technology to easily and effectively access information in different formats in a digital environment.”

Put more simply, it is a person’s skill level when it comes to using digital tools to gather information, communicate, and do their job.

A recent report from DigitalUS, a coalition of nonprofits, businesses, and educational institutions, noted that 80% of midlevel jobs require digital skills, and even positions that had been nontechnical often require use of new technologies, especially as the pandemic “catalyzed many organizations to shift to digital provision of services, requiring employees at all levels to learn new digital skills.” For utilities, that has included a shift to teleworking for some types of employees, using a broader array of devices to securely share information, and the technical and analytical expertise to harness and make sense of an increasing mountain of data.

“Digital skill gaps occur across all industries, and the energy sector is no different,” said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a senior fellow and researcher at the National Skills Coalition and the author of several reports on the topic. “I think it is fair to say that the gap they face is similar to what we have found generally — that one in three workers lack foundational digital skills.”

Meanwhile, The World Economic Forum projects that within just a few years, the core tech skills needed to perform most roles might nearly double. There is often an assumption that the problem will diminish as younger, tech-savvy employees enter the workforce, but Bergson-Shilcock’s research shows that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Younger workers are far from immune to digital skills gaps,” she reported. “Indeed, individuals under the age of 35 make up fully one-quarter of workers with no digital skills, and 29% of those with limited skills.”

Recognizing the Gaps

Bergson-Shilcock said that when employees lack digital skills it can create inefficiency and frustrate the worker. She mentioned a recent report on construction technology that highlighted how construction managers often manually transfer data from one app to another.

“Sometimes people’s lack of digital skills leads them to use existing technology products in slow or cumbersome ways that could be fixed with a minimum of training,” she said, noting that workers often spend a great deal of time covering for a lack of digital skills. “Fragmented or limited knowledge can be an invisible drag on productivity — and people higher up the food chain aren’t always aware of it. They know some function is difficult or taking longer than it should, but they don’t know where the problem lies,” she said.

Jakub noted that communication is often critical in a utility, and that can be a problem for some workers, along with collaboration or understanding how the functions intertwine. “There is a complex nature to a lot of what a utility does, and often our own tasks require specialized skills, and we may not know as much as we should about what is happening elsewhere.”

However, research from PWC shows that employees want to acquire digital skills. In its analysis of technology at work, it found that one-third of employees want to learn the skills to improve efficiency and teamwork, another third are interested in advancing their careers, and the remainder prefer to stick to familiar routines.

Bergson-Shilcock said that means utility leaders should recognize that workers aren’t reluctant to learn new skills but that the availability or cost of training or access to broadband or a computer may limit them. Often, at a smaller utility where an employee can wear many hats, the wide variety of functions requiring digital knowledge may be overwhelming.

“A person who is jack-of-all-trades may have trouble keeping up when some of those functions require learning a whole new online way of working,” she said.

Getting it done

Improving overall digital skills starts with hiring, experts say, and LES makes it a priority.

“There is a high expectation for all employees here to be able to use and adapt to technology in the workplace,” said Narin Ehrisman, recruitment and outreach specialist at LES. “In every role, digital skills factor into successful job performance. Having the ability and knowledge to complete business tasks through various forms of technology is a must-have for employability.”

Bergson-Shilcock is now involved in research examining thousands of employment ads and whether they specifically seek a detailed understanding of certain technology, some tech skills, or none. She said too often utilities and other organizations don’t spell out the digital requirements for a position. Sometimes that happens because there isn’t a specific credential for the skill they are seeking — a problem she attributes to the failure of employers and educators to communicate.

“It means that we default to whether or not a person has a bachelor’s degree, when there are a lot of other ways to communicate about the requirements for a job and the skills a worker has.”

She said there is movement toward more skill-based hiring, and utilities must consider the actual requirements for a job and be specific about them as they hire. Beyond that, experts say, an organization has to be deliberate about spotting areas where there are gaps in employee skills and be willing to make training available.

Jakub noted that his utility does more frequent training in departments where there is a greater turnover of employees, particularly in customer service positions. Other areas, like the engineering department from where he came, often have “tribal knowledge” specific to their department that employees pass along to each other and to new employees, in addition to periodic structured training.

More formal training can be done online easily today, and most employees will take it on given the time and opportunity, though some experts say collaborative learning is more effective. Research has shown that the resources used for acquisition or development of the training and time off for employees using it will more than pay for themselves in efficiency and employee satisfaction.

To spot the problem areas, Bergson-Shilcock outlined three steps she thinks utility managers should undertake to identify the need for training and carry it out.

1) Identify and then explore pain points to see if they are caused or worsened by digital skills issues. Administrators and managers usually find it easy to name the issues that are costing them time and money and causing worries, but they don’t always explore to determine if the root cause of the problem could be a digital skills issue.

“The real answer to ‘Why are our contract solicitations always going out a month late?’ might be ‘Robert doesn’t feel comfortable with the online contracts system, and he pushes the work off on to Jane, who doesn’t have time to do it on top of her real job.’ It might not be possible to get that blunt a statement in a group setting, but it might be possible to create an environment where employees can say things about gaps in the processes they use,” said Bergson-Shilcock.

2) Consider administering a survey or focus group to ask workers which digital skills they think they and their colleagues need. She suggests making the survey anonymous, with an option for employees to share a real-life example of a time when they were frustrated because of a digital skills issue facing their company or a colleague. “Those stories can shine a light on where the trouble spots are,” she said.

3) Make sure that digital skill-building solutions reflect how people learn. Bergson-Shilcock said we learn best “in a community with each other.” Sometimes this means a traditional classroom setting, but this could also mean scheduling time for people to have a weekly informal “user group” discussion to help people make sense of new information, practice with each other, share advice, or even complain and create constructive changes.

Preparing the Future Workforce

Having systems in place to identify gaps in digital literacy and address them will increasingly be important in the future, the Center for Energy Workforce Development said in its 2021 Gaps in the Energy Workforce report.

“We will undoubtedly need to find new ways to train workers in this new world, with a greater reliance on technology such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality,” the report said. “We’ll also need to meet students where and how they learn. And our ability to do so will impact how well we attract and retain our workforce.”

It also recommended that utilities “implement company-specific workforce development strategies, with a commitment to strategic workforce planning.”

“With increasingly technical jobs in the industry, preparing for tomorrow’s workforce cannot be left to chance or last-minute adjustments,” the report stated. “Workforce planning must be a business imperative, prioritized at the highest levels.”

It adds that utilities should support statewide efforts to build partnerships between energy employers and local education, labor, and government entities to develop secondary and postsecondary programs specific to skilled energy positions.

“It will be important for industry leaders to understand the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the future workforce and communicate those to community-based partners responsible for educating, training, and upskilling the workforce. The industry will be well served to have easily accessible curriculum available to share with educators, so it is easy for them to prioritize energy education.”

A Deloitte report on tech skills needed in the utility industry in the United Kingdom finds that “to take advantage of digital disruption, utilities need flexible organizational structure and must fundamentally change they way they attract, develop and engage their workforce.”

It describes the skills needed across the utility workforce, sometimes involving technology that seems far in the future but will impact utilities sooner than might be expected, in the same way some technology today seemed so far away just a short time ago. Field workers, for example, now use tablets, sensors, and drones, which require certain digital skills for software related to their individual functions. The report predicts that workers will increasingly use wearables, such as smart glasses, and will be examining data and analytics to make their workplace safer and “interpret and model asset performance and identify preventative actions before issues arise.”

It predicts that with more and more sophisticated data, utility workers will need to “turn data into insight to solve problems and decide on a course of action,” and that data will have a dramatic effect on how workers spend their time. The report also asserts that digitization will “revolutionize” some “back office” functions, from using blockchain in accounting to diminishing repetitive tasks to open up workers to make more strategic and analytic decisions, creating a need to know how to use processes like artificial intelligence to complete tasks. Call centers and customer service will increasingly gather, analyze, and use a variety of customer data to improve service and maintain loyalty, all of which will require advanced digital skills.

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