Many expect the Power Industry to lose a significant portion of its workforce in the very near future. Baby boomers (those born after WWII, 1946-1964) entered the workforce when most power plants were built. This age group is now reaching retirement age. According to a January 2017 assessment, by the US Department of Energy, 25% of US employees in electric and natural gas utilities will be ready to retire within 5 years [i]. The US Department of Labor estimates about half of the current power industry workforce will retire within 5-10 years. Meanwhile, the average age of industry employees is now over 50 [ii]. There are many concerns based on these statistics: How does the industry retain the knowledge that the current employees have? What gap do baby boomers create when they leave? Is there a plan in place to train new employees, creating a seamless transition to other, less-experienced personnel?
Newly hired workers often get their knowledge through On the Job Training (OJT). This is still a viable method for training one or two people to take over jobs, but not for the expected numbers needed to replace those retiring. Mentoring power plant workers with experienced, knowledgeable employees who have “been there and done that” can be very effective. It becomes less effective if the workforce has a large experience gap or generational gap between participants. The established employee after 30-50 years of experience simply can’t do their job and train at the same time. And if certain situations don’t occur during OTJ, gaps in information inevitably occur. Training manuals and an effective training department are the only solutions that make sense at this point. The manuals must establish an effective baseline of knowledge that the experienced employees can then build upon prior to their retirement.
Knowledge gaps are created when an experienced worker, with 40 years of knowledge, leaves and no method to capture that knowledge exists. This situation has to be evaluated based on the needs of the remaining individuals. New hires will inevitably have different skills and learn differently than present employees. A younger generation is likely to tap into computer skills, data science, and identify trends and data streams from an increasingly digital world in which they are comfortable. Computer Based Training (CBT) and virtual reality will become more and more common in the years ahead. However, training must take place sooner rather than later because an employee with 30-50 years of experience can target areas that either need more emphasis or are simply missed.
This is the most important part of this puzzle. New employees coming in should have a plan in place to navigate their way from new hire to operator to Shift Supervisor to Plant Manager. The training department and the training manuals must be able to meet those needs. I have seen many times where an employee with years of experience has retired and then has been asked to come back to train new employees. This should not happen. When an employee is nearing retirement, their knowledge needs to be addressed in the training program before they leave! It is much easier and much simpler to utilize this knowledge before retirement than attempting to bring those employees back into the plant post departure.
Establishing a program for transferring knowledge is an essential element for dealing with “brain drain.” Veteran utility workers tend to pass valuable institutional knowledge orally, rather than documenting and updating the information systematically. This intellectual capital is often lost when the worker retires because no formal program to capture their know-how is in place. They must become involved in the training manuals and training implementation of new workers before all of that knowledge is lost.
[i] U.S. Department of Energy, Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) Task Force report, second installment titled “Transforming the Nation’s Electricity System.” Chapter V: Electricity Workforce of the 21st-Century: Changing Needs and New Opportunities. January 2017.
[ii] U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration “Industry Profile – Energy.”