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How can utilities reach recruitment ‘cold spots’?

Experts from employer of the year at the 2021 Utility Week Awards, UKPN, and 2022 Water Industry Awards Diversity & Inclusion Initiative of the Year finalist, United Utilities, explain their recruitment strategies to engage traditionally hard-to-reach applicants.

Throughout August, a dozen 16-to-18-year-old south Londoners from backgrounds historically underrepresented in utilities took part in a new training scheme created by UK Power Networks (UKPN) and youth empowerment charity Urban Synergy.

Alongside e-learning opportunities, the Dream programme offered this cohort the chance to work across asset management, employee engagement, marketing and procurement departments and receive post-course certificates alongside further mentoring.

“This four-week internship programme will allow these young students the opportunity to build their skills in the areas they chose, as well as learning how to cope in a fast-paced environment,” Jazz Chaggar, talent acquisition manager at UKPN, said at the start of the scheme.

“All companies have a responsibility to ensure equal opportunities for all and we think that a vibrant workforce, from diverse backgrounds, enables a whole range of fresh ideas and perspectives to emerge, reflecting the community we serve.”

Looking ahead, 14 apprentices will join UKPN operations teams in September to aid its distribution of electricity to 8.3 million customers across London, the south east and east of England.

Improved tech, flexibility and opportunity

Speaking to Utility Week Innovate following the conclusion of the Dream programme , Alex Sturge, head of communications, engagement and learning and development at UKPN, explains that the company is already witnessing an “evolution” of the roles played by tech and digital in recruiting such apprentice cohorts and the next generation of staff.

“Millennials and Gen Z are entering the workplace and they expect flexibility, tech and opportunity,” he explains. “We have to evolve in those areas.

“Craft apprenticeships have been around for 30 years, they do a great job, and we are still looking to appoint 50 of them per year. But we also want digital apprentices, cyber apprentices, customer service apprentices.”

Innovating to lure new talent into utilities seems all the more crucial in the face of what looks like a looming dearth of industry expertise at a crucial juncture on the road to net zero.

According to analysis from PwC, for example, the UK’s energy sector is on course for a shortfall of around 200,000 skilled workers by 2030 due a mix of planned retirements and lack of provision for upskilling and reskilling existing staff.

PwC’s paper added that by 2030, more than a quarter of a million skilled workers from the fossil fuel sectors will likely depart as the net-zero transition continues, while 400,000 jobs will be needed in low-carbon energy sectors including nuclear, renewables and hydrogen.

This poses a huge recruitment, skills and communications challenge for companies such as UKPN to entice a new wave of workers.

“When you think about the energy transition, EV [electric vehicle] rollout and low carbon initiatives, I think we have a great opportunity – it’s an exciting time to get into our sector and we’re trying to leverage that,” Sturge says. “There are some really fun, exciting challenges in energy.

“But it’s really competitive because a lot of companies are very advanced in the way that they recruit and attract – they’ll use social media because they understand the changing market that they’re trying to appeal to. It’s a journey for us.”

  • Supporting customers through this winter and identifying emerging vulnerabilities are among the key themes at the Utility Week Forum, which will take place in London on 8-9 November. Find out more here.

Finding ‘cold spots’

This challenge demands that UKPN engages with tech and trends that have become part-and-parcel of the Millennial or Gen Z experience  – “we’re thinking about launching a TikTok,” Sturge says – as well as making headway in reaching underrepresented groups, or “cold spots”.

According to UKPN, Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis created an ever-widening gap between haves and have nots. Consequently, the firm partnered with social consultancy This Is Purpose and committed to the Levelling Up Goals agenda in April 2021 to engage underrepresented groups. These goals have also been adopted by the likes of Amazon, Pennon Group, the BBC, Cisco, NHS Trusts and 15 UK universities, among others.

Together, UKPN and This Is Purpose set out to plug opportunity gaps identified by assessing some 600 cold spot locations set out in the latter’s action plan.

UKPN assessed where opportunities were lacking through a community gap analysis of its distribution area. This drew upon social mobility and life outcome statistics from the Social Mobility Index and Department for Education, as well as data on the impact of Covid-19 from the Office for Budget Responsibility.

In UKPN’s area of operation, seven such spots – Ipswich, South West Norfolk, Hastings and Rye, North East Cambridgeshire and Suffolk Coastal, East and West Ham – were highlighted and have been targeted.

“When we knew the areas, we made connections with the local council by offering them activities and placements,” Sturge says. “There are also local charities where we can offer fuel advice and financial support around home installation, for example. It’s a long process, but it’s about building networks and driving change.”

Increasing applicant diversity

Similarly, United Utilities – which delivers 1.8 billion litres of water to more than three million homes and businesses across the north west every day – has seen the utilities sector’s lack of diversity reflected in some of its resourcing activities, including its annual apprenticeships. Every year, the business takes on around 50 apprentices with typically high proportions of male participants.

In recognition of the importance of a workforce that represents the diverse communities it serves, United Utilities partnered with a specialist diversity recruitment company at the start of 2020, and liased with job centres across its region, to increase the diversity of applicants.

It created a two-week training programme focused on developing relevant skills and knowledge to more than 50 potential applicants from a diverse range of backgrounds. Adapted for virtual delivery due to the pandemic – with bespoke elements featuring a range of speakers, challenges, e-learning and videos  – the course concluded with six separate qualifications.

As a consequence, United Utilities saw an increase in three-year apprenticeships filled by women, applicants from ethnic minorities, and candidates with disabilities or learning difficulties.

Its success encouraged the firm to run a further programme in 2021, and it continues to use lessons learnt to shape its approach to apprentice intakes and influence recruitment on a vacancy-by-vacancy basis.

In 2019, prior to the programme, 17% of apprentices were female compared to nearly 31% in 2021. United Utilities has also seen females apply and progress in typically male dominated field roles – for example, the company has recruited its first ever female HGV driver apprentice.

Similarly, 12% of apprentices from ethnic minority groups increased to 19% in 2021 following the programme launch, with 22% of apprentices disclosing a disability or learning difficulty.

Mission possible

For UKPN, its recruitment success is also rooted in steps taken during the pandemic via its “Mission Possible” staff engagement work. The initiative – which saw increased emphasis on flexible working, in the region of 300 video addresses from UKPN’s CEO and the firm avoid furloughing staff or making redundancies – delivered record results on network performance with customer service, increased employee engagement by 7%, and saw UKPN named employer of the year at the 2021 Utility Week Awards.

“We treated Covid, like a storm or a system emergency,” Sturge says. “We understood pretty quickly that high levels of employee engagement were going to be the only thing that would help us maintain performance.”

Utility Week Innovate, in collaboration with Utility Week Live aims to discover and promote innovative approaches to tackle front line business challenges through case studies, technical/project studies, networking, and live content. Be recognised as a key solution provider and meet your target audience face-to-face at UWL23. Find out more about exhibiting