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The utilities industry is in need of a facelift and the right talent can help

Julie Redfield

Breaking Energy

16 July 2014

Since the “war for talent” was first declared in the 1990’s, organizations the world over have been attempting to gain a competitive advantage by attracting and retaining top talent. From a plethora of models defining potential, through to complex supply and demand models, no stone has been unturned in the effort to triumph in this unending battle. Utilities throughout the US have a rapidly aging workforce and a burning demand for fresh talent. This figure speaks for itself: some 50% of the workforce is eligible to retire within the next few years.

Unfortunately the utilities industry is not often seen as the enticing, challenging environment that college graduates and more seasoned workers aspire to join. Simply put, the utility “brand” is not strong enough to attract the people the industry needs the most. To revamp their profile and attract a new generation of employees, utilities need to show that the vital, complex service they provide is one befitting the most enthusiastic and talented of individuals.

We have looked at this challenge with many utilities both globally and in the US, and have found that while a staffing strategy is a good start, it will only have sustained results if there are programs in place to support retaining, developing and engaging the new wave of talent into this industry.

Utilities need to consider three critical steps to have the right process in place:

1) Use a strong external employee brand to boost recruitment 

  • Think about the elements of your business that would most appeal to your ideal employees
  • Make the most of your role as core public service providers—operators of the fundamental infrastructure that holds society together like firefighters, the police force and the military.
  • Identify the complexity and challenges of the roles, talented people want to know they are part of something bigger and on the cutting edge. Fixing and upgrading the “world’s largest machine”—the US power grid—can involve 16-hour days, nightshifts and the need to be permanently on-call. Utility employees are exposed to some of the most ground-breaking technology across big data, renewables, distribution and software.
  • Seek to crack the “staid” utility image with your recruitment strategy. Educate future employees while they are in high school and even middle school about the rewarding career opportunities in utilities. Few industries have the breadth and depth of competencies that utilities do. 

2) Build a culture with the right conditions for employees to thrive – that’s what talent wants

  • For utilities to seem attractive from the outside, they must create the right conditions on the inside to engage employees. We have found that by grouping talent or employees into “talent motivation groupings”, companies can successfully tailor the employee experience to help different types of employees grow, contribute and have fun while on the job. We are all familiar with grouping consumer or clients into groups to tailor packages for them, so why not take this approach with employees? The question then becomes, not what can talented people do for us, rather, “what can we do to make the employee experience meaningful for all types of employees, and what can we do to ensure all employees can unlock their potential?”  

3) Support new talent with agile leadership 

  • Leaders need to listen and respond to what different generations within the ranks are looking for. They need to accept, for example, that older workers will likely want a different kind of flexibility and working style than college graduates. Having leaders that are agile, collaborative and open to working in new or different ways, as conditions change, is not just a nice to have, it is now an imperative. 
  • Many of our clients tell us that they fear for the future leadership pipeline, as they have long-tenured employees leaving, and a lack of seasoned professionals to back fill their jobs, or to take on leadership roles in the future. We have found that it is often a leadership focus on basic talent management practices that sets apart companies that are “talent magnets.” Bringing great people through the front door is not enough to keep people engaged. Leaders must focus on the talent basics: coaching, succession planning and performance management.  

While utilities need to have strong talent management practices to manage through this period of demographic shift in workforce, these practices will only be sustainable if companies have created the right selling proposition, the right conditions for professional success and a cadre of agile leaders. The future of the utilities industry looks bright if action is taken now.

Julie Redfield is a talent management expert at PA Consulting Group

For our thinking and insights on this subject, click here or contact us now. 

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