Skills for the future in utilities: we must mind the gap

Kevin Fowlie, Managing Director
16 October 2017
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Utilities are life’s essentials. A modern world without electricity, gas or water is unimaginable in our interconnected times but few people spare a thought for the mammoth task of keeping the essential delivery infrastructure up to scratch.

Utility services need frontline labour to repair and upgrade networks and as demand increases so do customer expectations about better connectivity and service. However, there is a major problem. Like many sectors there has been a historical underinvestment in the core skills required for these frontline roles.

Demand for specialist and front-line skills is growing as our country invests in its infrastructure. Add to this an ageing workforce profile (one fifth of the sector’s skilled workers are approaching retirement age) and the potential reduction in labour migration from the EU and we need a range of solutions to address these challenges. Already, 36% of vacancies are proving hard to fill (higher than any other UK sector) and 14% of all employers report skills gaps within their existing workforces. There is an urgent need to build a sustainable workforce – and one with the right skills for the future.

We must work together to address this issue

We need to work closely with partners and competitors to collectively attract more people into the industry. Last December, we joined forces with 26 other utility organisations to launch the Skills Accord at the House of Lords - a voluntary, cross-industry partnership designed to address the skills gaps we all face. We are also taking an active role on the Energy & Utilities Skills Partnership’s Strategy Council which is seeking to deliver the first sector skills strategy developed by EU skills members. This is committed to promoting recruitment in our sectors, maximising investment in skills (for instance, through developing high quality apprenticeships) and providing consistent quality of training. This has to be a collective effort.

There is cause for optimism. The smart metering installation programme has been a brilliant vehicle for attracting new talent into our industry, with hundreds of new employees from a range of backgrounds, recruited to upgrade the nation’s metering infrastructure. Many of these have been trained from scratch to the highest standards and in future they will undertake the apprenticeship programme in smart metering. It is a brilliant introduction to our industry which has also created new supervisory opportunities.

However, more is needed. Our industry needs to appeal to the huge pool of as-yet-untapped talent who currently aren’t aware of the huge value of our work and the opportunities it contains for them.

Driving diversity in the workforce 

The huge societal value of utilities is a strength we should be leveraging with this group to help us drive diversity in our workforce. Utility services help us live comfortably, heat and light our homes, cook food and stay globally connected, both physically and digitally. The industry needs new capabilities to help us innovate and improve customer experience. The engaging and exciting connection between the essential societal value of utility services, and the contribution the sector makes to environmental sustainability is a hook with which we can convince people who have not considered a career in our sector, of the value they could bring. We are not vocal enough about this as an industry.

As well as ensuring continuity of services, more diverse workforces help drive innovation and better customer service. Different perspectives lead to more diverse thinking. Joint initiatives in diversity, increasing awareness amongst our managers and front-line staff are slowly opening minds to the potential in the wider population.

Supporting ex-offenders to get back into work

We have had some success in offering ex-offenders a pathway back to work. Linking up our service in prisons, probation and utilities is offering ex-offenders work experience both prior to and following release from prison. This is developing a further pipeline of talent.

Like every industry undergoing change, we also need to challenge our own mindsets about what work will look like in the future and anticipate these changes in the way we manage our workforce. The way in which we work is changing. Our children will be filling new roles which haven't been invented yet. We will always need some of the manual capabilities we are familiar with today, but the advent of technology like robotic drain clearing, drone-based inspection regimes, preventative monitoring and data analytics, will help us anticipate issues and deliver services in a less intrusive way.

Our graduate and apprenticeship programmes will continue to fuel this innovation as they invent solutions to issues that we are only just understanding – or are yet to even be aware of.


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