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The rise of the older utility worker: Experienced, intuitive and maybe even available for 'gig' work

The combination of a utility industry bracing for nearly one quarter of its workers preparing to retire in the next five years and the lack of enough younger workers to fill the departing ranks means that utilities are now starting to think differently about older workers, traditional roles and job descriptions.

A new type of employee is emerging, the older worker who is near or at retirement and eager to continue to make use of his or her lifelong experience in any number of work situations.

These workers offer maturity, wisdom and an ability to mentor younger workers. They are also often able to transfer knowledge that can't be found in a manual or taught in a class.

This shift in workforce dynamics is occurring just in time. A federal report says a stubborn worker shortage lies ahead. By 2030, electric utilities and smart grid companies will need 105,000 new employees but only 25,000 workers want the positions, according to "Transforming the Nation's Electricity System," the second installment of a federal quadrennial energy review issued in January.

The older worker can help fill the gap. Retiring no longer necessarily means leaving work; it may instead be a time to change one's work schedule and terms, to become a flex-time, freelance or short-term contractor. Some of these older workers are looking for a change in pace or scenery. They may be post-retirement and not ready to give up work. Or they may need the income because their retirement account alone can't sustain them.

That is the word from career consultants, AARP, and utilities who are on the vanguard of the new utility employment trend.

 

(Companies yield dividends when older and younger employees work together)

Shira Harrington, a career coach, says that the circumstances keeping older workers in the job market is good news for utilities.

"They bring wisdom and maturity to the table. There is a savviness -- legacy thinking not in the negative sense but in the positive sense," she said.

These age 50+ workers are particularly valuable for their wealth of industry knowledge and as mentors to younger workers moving up the ranks.

Transitioning to paradise

Take for example, Keys Energy Services, a public power utility headquartered in Key West, Florida with about 29,000 customers and a large 'snowbird' population.

After several journeymen became eligible for retirement, the utility found itself with a crew of apprentice line workers. This created "something of an imbalance in that department," said Julio Torrado, the utility's director of human resources & communications.

Being in the Florida Keys creates a unique hiring situation. "There are a lot of people who want to live in paradise, but paradise comes at a cost," he said. People can't necessarily retire, but want to make the move to the warmer climate.

This creates a pool of older workers who are transitioning to the Keys as an eventual retirement spot. Keys Energy Services has found itself in the fortunate position of tapping into this pool, finding utility workers late into their careers who still have a lot to offer.

Torrado described how one such worker is helping the utility overcome a shortage of experienced electric line repair workers. A journeyman, he was nearing retirement age and moved to the Florida Keys looking for a fresh start following changes in his personal life. Now he works with the utility's apprentices, showing them the "ins and outs of the position," Torrado said. "By the time those apprentices are ready, he'll probably be at a point where he is ready to retire."

This older Keys Energy worker is not just filling a job, but is passing along his intuitive understanding to younger workers, skills not found in manuals and classes.

"It is the kind of tacit knowledge that can only be passed on through mentoring," said Heather Tinsley-Fix, senior advisor, financial resilience programming at AARP. The information is not of the 'London is the capital of England' sort, she said, which can be transferred via documentation. "It's how much cumin do you put in the chili. It is not something exactly measurable; it has to do with experience."

People skills learned over time

Lawrenceburg Municipal Utilities serves a blue-collar region of Indiana hard hit by job loss due to factory automation. This keeps Olin Clawson, utility director, tuned to workforce issues. He describes encouraging young workers to enter the trades on the one hand, and older workers to learn new tech on the other.

Clawson particularly values older workers in customer-facing jobs. Age, he says, brings with it not only professional know-how, but people skills crucial to these positions. When approached by an unhappy customer, the older worker knows to be patient and understanding. They've been through it before, he said.

A customer's perception of the utility, "will have a lot to do with the first interaction with that person. If they are pleasant, it is going to matter," he said. "Life experiences cannot be overlooked."

Of course, some life experiences can work against the older worker. Clawson described a clerical worker, still at the utility well past retirement age, who balked at the idea of learning a new, robust work order system that would track products and debit the inventory.

But once she came to understand that there was a natural learning curve, that anybody learning the system, no matter their age, would make mistakes, she relaxed and learned it. Now she seems "really engaged, really enjoying her work," Clawson said. "It was a confidence issue."

Indeed, confidence is "a huge thing for the older worker who is not employed," said career coach Harrington. After working at one place for decades, and then losing that job, "they are thinking they are unemployable, which is not true."

Sometimes workers lack confidence because they are unaware of how their skills translate into other kinds of jobs. When investor-owned utility American Electric Power decided to shutter a power plant in Lawrenceburg, workers who had been there for 30 years were at a loss about what to do next. "They took for granted their own abilities," Clawson said. Although many were not college educated, they were highly skilled. If they were willing to move, or translate their skills into other jobs, they were marketable, he said.

Productivity rises with age

The insecurity older workers feel is fueled by the societal stereotype that they are slow and unproductive - although a German research study undercuts this notion.

The Munich Center for the Economics of Aging found that worker productivity actually increases up to age 65. The report concludes that even in jobs that are physically taxing, "the decline with age is compensated with characteristics that appear to increase with age and are hard to measure directly, such as experience and the ability to operate when tense situations occur, typically when things go wrong, and there is little time to fix them."

Tay McNamara, co-director of the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, points out that in more physically taxing jobs older workers tend to figure out ways to work smarter. "Suppose normally you have to go into a control panel to do the job and you can't crouch down as far. You find another way to get there," she said.

Moving from an 'ing' to an 'er'

Some older workers are staying in their jobs longer; others are being rehired for projects under short-term contracts, and still others are moving into the rising 'gig' economy. These workers offer their skills in the marketplace on a freelance or temporary basis. Harrington founded Boomer Works to help such workers transfer their skills into what she calls 1099 rather than W-2 jobs, referring to the tax forms used by the self-employed versus employed worker.

To do this, workers need to develop entrepreneurial mindsets, stop thinking of themselves as 'ings and become 'ers', she said. This means presenting oneself not as someone who was running a certain utility project and is now unemployed, but instead as a project manager now offering the service on the market.

All kinds of businesses find value in freelance employees, she said. Many departments are overworked but cannot hire additional full-time employees. So instead they contract out specific projects.

Just as workers need to think about their skills in a more flexible way, utilities would benefit from thinking about older workers differently. The worker may not fit the exact job description sought, but in fact has the skill set and only requires some retraining, according to McNamara.

"We all think we arrive ready to go, but that's not true. Everyone needs training," she said.

Organizations like AARP and the Boston College Center on Aging and Work offers various tools to help utilities and other businesses cultivate an older workforce, including a data base of case studies that offer best practices on a range of programs from phased retirement to flex supervisor training to structured work from home.

But the ultimate goal, says AARP's Tinsley-Fix, isn't to just employ skilled, older workers at utilities. It is to create a multi-generational task force, where each generation brings knowledge and ability that creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Indeed, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District describes the mutual benefit of bringing young and old together. The California utility hired a high school intern for its fleet department last summer. The utility was impressed by her career goal to be a biomedical engineer.

Separately, the intern had been grappling with solving a problem for her robotics team. It was in her work with the transportation fleet that she found her answer. It came to her when she saw experienced utility workers use a slip ring to keep wires from becoming tangled as they ran through the utility trucks' accessories to power the truck's boom.

Where she'll take her robotics skills is yet to be seen, but she'll be able to trace her progress to experienced workers, still on the job, and still with a lot to offer.

For more information about AARP's employer programs, visit AARP's website.