For human resources directors across the utility sector, the figures behind the skills crisis will be firmly ingrained into their psyche. Half of the current workforce is set to retire by 2025, and an additional 200,000 new technical and engineering recruits are needed to maintain the sector’s capability at its current level, never mind to meet the industry’s growing needs.
Exploring these issues, and discussing potential solutions, were the main topics at the Utility Week roundtable, sponsored by Fujitsu, held in London on 3 November.
The first subject, in a lively discussion, was the need for utilities to attract new engineers and employees.
The perception of the sector, often pilloried in the national media and depicted as a non-glamorous collection of businesses, struggles against other industries – one delegate even said careers advisers are extolling the virtues of a YouTube blogging career to students over traditional roles in industries like utilities.
These other “sexy” industries are pulling away potential future engineers, but the industry is not helping itself in the way it describes itself – especially with job titles such as intermittent discharge manager on offer.
The need for an image overhaul and a simplification of language was called for, as was the need to appeal to students at a younger age, rather than when they pick their GCSE options and it is “too late” to attract them to engineering.
However, while attracting new talent is troublesome, retaining ageing engineers is also a tough task. Many of the sector’s senior staff are wanting to retire, but the companies are keen to retain them and their knowledge.
Scottish Water’s Shirley Campbell said its solution is to offer flexible retirement, which keeps experienced employees as part of the team with reduced hours, and partners them with apprentices. This keeps them engaged and shares skills from old to young – and vice versa. On top of this, once the engineers do enter full retirement, they are made “alumni” of the company and their skills retained in that manner.
The other delegates agreed this was a good idea, with many of them offering similar schemes of their own.
There was a consensus that the sector, and beyond, needed to act to crack the skills crisis by tackling it at both ends.
Calls were made for utilities, either collectively or individually, to work closely with schools to show the positive and attractive side of working in the sector. This includes the opportunity to interact with state-of-the-art technology, and to fulfil a valuable social purpose.
The “pride” utility workers have in helping their communities function was something the delegates agreed is not shouted about enough outside of individual companies. Doing so would encourage more students to make relevant enabling subject choices when it counts, delegates thought.
The difficulty has been getting the sector as a whole to act as one, and while no firm commitments were made at the event, positive noises were made about taking collective action.
We encourage employees to remain with us and consider flexible retirement. This eases their transition to full retirement, provides us with a final retirement date and also ensures knowledge transfer takes place between a more experienced employee and usually a new modern apprentice.
Shirley Campbell, director for people, workplace and organisational development, Scottish Water
It’s quite clear that the language used around the sector is not helpful to us and just talking about ‘skills’ has left us on the bottom shelf in terms of the government’s consideration of what we do. What we’re talking about is strategic workforce renewal and how skills sits within it.
Nick Ellins, chief executive, EUSkills
There is a strength and pride in helping the local community, which is common across utilities. We just need to get that message out there.
Caroline Metcalfe, talent manager, Yorkshire Water
We’ve got competition coming and, on top of that, the digital agenda which is changing things dramatically in utilities and there is a risk we will leave some of our workforce behind.
We have some really strange job titles, including one which was intermittent discharge manager. Does that really sound appealing to potential new employees?
Chris Maloney, director of human resources, Southern Water
The need to ensure that we have the right skills in place for the, as yet, undetermined shape of our business is equally challenging. This will include technical and digital capabilities which have not previously been part of our focus.
Chris Degg, director of human resources, UK Power Networks
Five key themes
- Attracting talent. A major problem is attracting talent to a sector that is not seen as glamorous or ‘sexy’. Other career options are seen as more appealing.
- Retaining talent. Retaining the skill set and knowledge base the sector has built up over the decades is also a challenge, especially with an ageing workforce that is nearing retirement.
- Relevant skills. Getting school students interested in STEM subjects and developing relevant skills remains a challenge, with the numbers taking STEM subjects falling.
- Cross-sector co-operation. The entire sector is struggling with the skills crisis, and so is engineering as a whole. Cross-sector working is required to ensure the skills base stays strong and grows to meet future needs.
- Cross-generational co-operation. One way in which to share the decades worth of knowledge the senior engineers have accrued is to partner them with apprentice engineers.