Unashamed to innovate

David McLoughlin, Managing Director
23 April 2019
Image of a woman, wearing safety goggles.
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The future of the utilities sector is innovative and data-driven – that's why we need a smart, tech-savvy young workforce

From the moment we wake up in the morning until we go to bed at night, technology is now all around us, a constant presence in our lives. Whether checking traffic conditions on a tablet before our morning commute or asking Alexa turn off the lights at the end of the day, we work in a world in which modern technology has changed our lives in a myriad ways - revolutionising how we work, live, and play.

Digital technology benefits customers and providers alike

Digital technology is a tool that has allowed us to complete everyday tasks in more intuitive or more advanced ways. But it is also a tool for understanding the challenges we all face in a deeper way, enabling us to get a richer knowledge and develop better solutions.

Apply this to the utilities sector, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated and a sector that is primed for disruption. Smart metering is one of the first examples of large-scale change, giving greater prominence to data and providing greater feedback to customers on their energy use that empowers them to make informed decisions about their energy consumption.

Customers are benefitting from technological advances, but so are energy suppliers and others operating in the sector. We now have much better access to data, using increasingly, for instance, remote sensor technology. We’re also using artificial intelligence and automation more than ever before.

Unquestionably, the rise of digital technology has been a positive development for the utilities sector as we’re now using data to deliver more efficient and reliable services to customers. It has, however, at the same time presented us with a major challenge.

The challenge is attracting talent

The labour market in utilities is already constrained. A fifth of the workforce is expected to retire in the next ten years. As an industry, we clearly need to attract a new tech-savvy generation to work with us.

We need them to help us re-set our thinking as technology rapidly evolves, and with it the expectations of our customers. This new talent will be essential to the safe and reliable operation of the future utilities network, one that needs to be able to provide the enhanced level of service we all demand.

Are we doing enough to attract that talent? Yes and no. In terms of reaching out to the widest possible pool of candidates, there have been positive steps taken across the sector to ensure the employee base reflects the communities in which we work. This includes the launch of a sector-wide inclusion commitment (as part of the EU Skills Partnership), which is championed by Amey and 32 other companies aimed at attracting a more diverse and inclusive population of talent. Appealing to more people from different backgrounds must be part of our strategy.

The work of the Skills Accord, which is promoting skills sustainability in the supply chain, as well as the welcome move by the regulators to insist that companies include workforce resilience in their business plans, is another development that is welcome. Ofwat considers workforce resilience to be one of the key elements to customer-focused delivery (alongside operational, corporate and financial resilience set out in their PR19 water price review) and it is encouraging to see that Ofgem has also included workforce resilience in the RIIO-2 price setting process.

Encouraging companies to think long term about their future resource planning is helping to move the culture of the industry away from a race to the bottom to one of added value and long-term alliances.

Are we doing enough?

Positive steps though these all are, across the industry we are still struggling to supply the numbers of skilled employees required to deliver future infrastructure projects. More must be done and urgently. Bringing in a smart, tech-embracing generation of young minds is what our industry collectively needs to rejuvenate itself and prepare for the future.

And this is no small challenge. The retail sector attracts twice as many STEM graduates compared with the utilities sector. Why is our sector so comparatively unattractive? I think the answer lies in perceptions, which can be key.

The utilities sector is simply not seen as being innovative and forward-thinking, which must change. By embracing new technologies, and being unashamed to innovate, we can tackle this perception problem by offering stimulating and exciting careers for young people. They are the key to doing things differently, challenging the norm and unlocking enhanced services for the future.

Celebrating the innovative

Those of us in the utilities sector know that innovation is happening already. Across Amey, we’re trialling the use of VR, for instance, using it to help us optimise the way we schedule work, improve site safety and minimise disruption to customers.

We’re also looking into 3D printing, so that components of sewers can be manufactured on site in minutes to reduce the time taken for streetworks and ultimately improve the service provided to end users.

We’re also examining data more thoroughly than ever before with the assistance of our Strategic Consulting team, taking raw information and modelling it to identify trends and hotspots that can determine when and how we intervene in the maintenance of assets.

Innovation is happening, and much more will unfold as we continue to explore the possibilities that technology can bring to the sector. It is truly an exciting time to be working in utilities.

Making an impact where we can
Whilst we appreciate that some factors affecting talent attraction are outside of our control, such as low unemployment levels, we need to work together to tackle the areas where we can make a difference. This includes supporting the uptake of STEM subjects in schools and colleges, being more vocal about what makes working in our sector so exciting and so vital, and highlighting the crucial role utilities play in every aspect of human life.

At Amey we are up for this challenge, and we know others are as well, eager to champion our sector, and encourage young, bright people to join us in the delivery of utilities for generations to come.

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