Ontario News

Raising the next generation of energy leaders

As the electric power industry moves forward with new technology, the workforce that is needed to design, build, and manage the next generation of systems will undergo an equal if not greater transformation. The power industry therefore faces an intensifying challenge: Ensuring that our education and training systems are attuned to the real needs of the system and produce the right kind of graduates.

          To excel in the intensely competitive and interactive markets of the future, power companies will need to recruit people whose strengths include a working appreciation for what lies ahead and the nature of change. Future employees must understand not just the energy system, but how to adapt and remain flexible.

          In this continually disrupted landscape, the corporate workforce is one of the few factors over which management can exercise direct control. As such, it’s central to many energy companies’ strategies for dealing with a rapidly changing market. Skills in engineering, finance and regulatory approvals will still be relevant, but they may not be sufficient to run a power company in the future. Educational institutions need to be just as aware of the evolving needs of the sector as investors and project developers. But are they?

          More than 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson—the 28th president of the U.S. and former president of Princeton University—famously said, “It is easier to move a cemetery than to change a curriculum.” He probably ran into more than a few people in educational institutions who were still committed to producing the proverbial buggy whip.


Multiple Planning Horizons are the New Reality

Along with all the other kinds of change underway, planning horizons for power projects are being rethought in may cases. Under these conditions, people with long-term investments may find themselves pitted against others who want to finance new investments, sometimes in the same company. There are often healthy debates on when it’s wise to accept a slightly higher risk and higher cost of capital in order to take a position in what may be more-competitive options. For some, the answer is a no-brainer—they can’t afford not to invest in future options. For many others, the answer has to be more gradual, considering that arriving at a dependable answer requires new analytical skills.

          How can one project, company, or industry be the paragon of stability when it is trying to attract long-term capital, while exhibiting the latest innovative thinking when planning and deploying new technology? It is a uniquely human challenge to reconcile the predictability necessary to secure financing with the flexibility necessary to capitalize on new ideas. You need a smart, perceptive, motivated workforce that is capable of learning new tricks, dealing with the unpredictable, and recognizing the consequences of recent events.


Adapting Educational Programs

It seems that our future leaders will need to get used to building an efficient and integrated system while managing new kinds of risk. Yet, unsettled employment conditions are in the forecast. New jobs are expected to focus less on achieving scale and securing major long-term investments. Instead, they are likely to value intelligent deployment of systems that achieve high degrees of efficiency and coordination at a more-granular level, high levels of trust with consumers, and the ability to change course and adapt to circumstances.

          Dynamic abilities, responsiveness, and real-time awareness will be prized, not just in the systems being built, but in the employees working in the sector. Which educational programs and which institutions are most effective at imbuing a readiness for change and a capacity for managing it?

          These are not traditional skills, at least not for the power sector. It would be unwise to assume they will be delivered exclusively from the traditional sources of education. No doubt there will be many who claim to be masters in training for the new circumstances, but few can be expected to have meaningful track records.

          To identify effective sources for relevant education, consult the experts in education, but don’t stop there. Look at the people who embody the skills and talents required, and find out where they got their training and how it was honed. There is no substitute for talking with your staff and their professional colleagues, as they will undoubtedly have a strong sense of what’s going on and what’s needed in their respective areas.

          When talking to the existing educational institutions, ask them to re-craft their offerings to meet your needs. Educational institutions do not operate in a vacuum. They need to hear from you. In fact, it’s central to their own vitality that they listen and respond to you.

          In Canada, government, employers and educators are collaborating on a project designed to ensure that students in post-secondary institutions are acquiring skills relevant for today’s rapidly changing workplace. The Empowering Futures program, led by Electricity Human Resources Canada, helps young Canadians make the transition from school to work through partnerships between businesses and schools, promoting “practice-based learning opportunities for students through subsidized work integrated learning opportunities.”

          In addition, the program will enable a review of curricula amongst partners, particularly as it relates to green energy jobs (e.g., energy efficiency, smart grid) to better identify the requisite new skills and competencies required for the changing electricity industry.

          The workforce of the future will be different from that of today. Virtually everyone will have to contend with the very real possibility that a major investment project could be outdated before it goes into operation. This requires different styles of work where participants are constantly scanning for better options and devising strategies that mitigate risk for projects once they are committed.

          Although building a high-quality workforce is essential in every business, it may be that the management of human resources will be the defining feature for success in a sector like electricity that has to face the continuing challenge of reconciling constant change with long-term financing. The energy leaders of tomorrow must be creative problem solvers, agile, team players, able to think outside the box. They are likely to experience a lot of dislocation in their own work and, rather than bristling at the prospect of change, they will almost certainly look forward to it as an opportunity to develop and demonstrate their own dynamic capabilities.

—Jake Brooks

Portions of this post were originally published in a POWER magazine article and are reprinted by permission of Access Intelligence LLC.

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