Energy Powerlines Featured Image Michelle Branigan
Michelle Branigan, CEO of EHRC
Michelle Branigan
CEO - Electricity Human Resources Canada

Attracting Youth Talent is Vital to the Electricity Sector’s Future

Takeaways

  1. The electricity sector’s workforce is aging, and it must attract younger workers, who are currently under-represented compared to other sectors, to pass knowledge and experience on to ensure its sustainability.
  2. Electricity industry employers must focus on increasing workforce diversity. A diverse workforce is an asset in terms of encouraging more innovation and communication but is also crucial to recruiting more young talent.
  3. Educators need to tailor curricula to the needs of the job market. Promoting the value of trade jobs, being aware of the impact of technological advancements and preparing early are key to creating a more flexible and adaptable workforce.

Action

Governments must communicate policy changes affecting industry standards and certifications. Employers and educators must rethink how they impart professional skills to students, and how they use labour market intelligence to develop and adapt curricula for jobs of the future. Electricity industry employers must use knowledge management processes to ensure that knowledge is transferred to the next generation of workers. Canada’s electricity industry must tell a better story about the different types of jobs that exist within it.


How has the electricity ecosystem been impacted by COVID-19 and how can we ensure there is inclusion in the workforce as the economy recovers?

The electricity sector has not been immune to the immense impact of COVID-19. Organizing a critical workforce that operates 24-7 without compromising health, safety or operational regulations is a tremendous undertaking and the Canadian electricity sector has again shown its resiliency by maintaining undisrupted operations in the midst of a challenging and rapidly changing situation. 

Companies have had to ensure the safety of their front-line staff – ensuring access to personal protection equipment (PPE) and putting in place new safety protocols, for example, while also managing the migration of employees to remote working. Some companies have put projects on hold, reduced hiring plans and laid off contract workers as well as apprentices. Many have indicated that their ability to take on students for work integrated learning opportunities will be diminished. But we’re an essential service, and resilient, and I have no doubt that any pain will be short-lived.  

In regard to an inclusive workforce, EHRC has long promoted the values of diversity, equity and inclusion. We know that around the world women are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and that current social inequalities are being exacerbated. As our industry addresses demographic challenges as well—86% of new jobs will come on board as a result of retirement—there exists an opportunity for our industry to actually move forward on this issue now and ensure that the workforce reflects the Canadian population.   


How would you describe the importance of electricity to the Canadian economy and its future? How is electrification progressing in Canada and what are the forces impacting it going forward?

Along with access to clean water, electricity is one of the most critical services that we have as a nation. Loss of power, even for a short time, can be disastrous for a community, and naturally people react strongly whenever there is a power failure. Ensuring that our power system is reliable and resilient is absolutely crucial. For me, that means the electricity industry’s most critical asset is our people. Regardless of the energy source, developing a supply of skilled, agile and adaptable workers is critical to ensuring Canada’s long-term electricity stability.

However, our industry is currently in a state of flux. Our energy policies are going green, new technologies are changing the grid, and the workforce isn’t getting any younger.  

We’ve seen disruption take place in so many other industries—think Uber, Netflix, Spotify. These are common words in our lexicon today. I don’t think the electricity industry—the energy industry—is going to be immune. 

Globally and in Canada, the commitment to address climate change and reduce GHG emissions is driving the shift toward renewable energy sources. We continue to see weather issues and natural disasters put additional pressure on the grid. Nowadays, we are seeing power line technicians becoming first responders alongside police and firemen. Furthermore, many rural and remote communities, particularly Indigenous communities, are still reliant on diesel generators for their power, and that needs to change.

That being said, with new innovations that allow individual consumers to install solar panels and sell power back to the grid, we are seeing more opportunities for increasing democratization in the distribution of energy. The skill development issue remains vitally important to both industry and Indigenous communities; there is clearly an opportunity for partnerships here.

At the same time, innovative and emerging technologies are poised to dramatically change how the Canadian power industry operates. Advancements in artificial intelligence, smart grids, cybersecurity, and more are reshaping the landscape of Canada’s electricity industry, and while that innovation will bring with it tremendous opportunities in efficiency and quality, it will also bring challenges around upskilling and developing the workforce that can continuously adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

Looking at the electrification of the transportation network specifically, rapid growth in the number of electrical vehicles will radically increase overall demand for electricity. That will necessitate significant modifications and upgrades to the existing grid infrastructure to handle the load increase. However, there is a lot of disagreement on how quickly change will happen.


How will changing workforce demographics impact the electricity industry?

In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that, for the first time, senior citizens outnumber our youth. In the electricity industry, 86% of our workforce replacement needs are due to retirement. With the most recent economic recession, many older workers decided to stay on, but in reality, there are only so many years that older individuals can keep working in a trade, considering the labour intensity of the job. It’s also very possible the current pandemic may increase the retirement rate.

What this means is that a lot of valuable institutional knowledge will be walking out the doors very soon. Worryingly, many employers in the electricity industry have not undertaken a knowledge management process to ensure that knowledge is captured and passed on to the next generation of workers. Without a plan in place, employers will be at a tremendous loss, losing crucial relationships and lessons learned from the most challenging experiences.

“Worryingly, many employers in the electricity industry have not undertaken a knowledge management process to ensure that knowledge is captured and passed on to the next generation of workers.”

At the same time, there are challenges in attracting young workers to the electricity sector. We have just conducted a study, to be released mid-July, that provides insight into the impressions of Millennial and Gen Z Canadians on pursuing careers in Canada’s electricity sector. The study finds that youth are open to opportunities in electricity but lack awareness of the variety of rewarding careers available and an understanding of how the sector’s values and direction can complement their own ambitions. Many young people aren’t aware of the benefits the sector offers, and don’t fully understand the breadth of careers that are available. Earlier in their education and when making career choices, young men and woman are still pressured to attend university versus taking up a skilled trade. The new generation are also not content to spend decades working up the corporate ladder— they are looking for opportunities to grow and quickly have a voice. Employers will need to spend time understanding the younger generation’s values and what it is they want in a job, a company, or an industry.

The changing nature of work is leading to the transformation of the skill sets required for jobs in today’s economy. Innovations, an aging workforce and increasing digitization in the economy are all factors that are responsible for these changes. While we still need to manage our legacy systems, we are going to see new types of work and jobs evolve, and that will require workers to up-skill or re-skill while engaging in continuous and life-long learning practices.

“Employers will need to spend time understanding the younger generation’s values and what it is they want in a job, a company, or an industry.”

As people look to the future of work, we need to understand how technology will impact jobs and the skills required to ensure employees remain current. The challenges of a disrupted economy and workforce are felt more by those who are transitioning in the industry and there is a role there for employers to help their employees identify how they will be impacted and how they can adapt.

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What must be done to increase diversity within the electricity industry’s workforce? 

We need to take action, collectively. Our industry is traditionally very male-oriented. Only 26% of our workers are women. On top of that, we also do not have enough Indigenous people, people with disabilities, internationally trained workers, and more, so there is an issue with underrepresentation throughout the industry’s workforce.

“Developing a culture of inclusion takes commitment and intention—and it has to be genuine. We have a shared responsibility to make that change happen.”

As we have seen from the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, we cannot continue to just hope things will get better, we need to actually do something. Developing a culture of inclusion takes commitment and intention—and it has to be genuine. We have a shared responsibility to make that change happen.

The history between electricity employers and Indigenous communities has not always been positive, so there is a need to establish long-term trust and build relationships. Indigenous communities across Canada are looking for increased participation in the economic and political environment, particularly with energy infrastructure. In Canada, a lot of infrastructure building takes place on the land of Indigenous peoples, so we really need to spend more time working more closely with these communities to ensure that there is mutual benefit.

“In Canada, a lot of infrastructure building takes place on the land of Indigenous peoples, so we really need to spend more time working more closely with these communities to ensure that there is mutual benefit.”

We would be naïve to think that there won’t be some pushback and resentment to diversity initiatives, so organizations in Canada’s power sector need to work hard to educate everybody on the importance of inclusivity and its benefits. There are a lot of employers who have made good strides in this area, but when we did our recent labour market information assessment, we found that only 32% of the Canadian power companies surveyed have a formal diversity and inclusion strategy in place.

We speak about attracting talent, but if an electricity company doesn’t have diversity in its leadership and throughout the company, why would new employees want to start their career with that company? We need leaders in industry, education and government to sign onto EHRC’s Leadership Accord on Gender Diversity in order to promote the values of diversity, equality and inclusion.

“If an electricity company doesn’t have diversity in its leadership and throughout the company, why would new employees want to start their career with that company?”

In fact, the sector can leverage its reputation as a source of stable and attractive employment and tap into the environmental appeal of renewable energy, which is sparking fresh interest in the industry and attracting more diverse workers who see renewables as an opportunity to make a difference in the world, protect the environment and improve quality of life. There is a compelling case here and employers need to make it.


What must the electricity industry do differently in order to remain competitive in terms of attracting and training its next generation of talent? 

We need to tell a better story about the different types of jobs that exist in Canada’s electricity industry. While largely technical, the industry also comprises workers who are not involved with the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines—think legal, marketing, customer service, human resources, finance, and more. Every one of those jobs is also crucial to ensure that our systems work.

“We need to tell a better story about the different types of jobs that exist in Canada’s electricity industry.”

We’re not a “just in time” industry: on average, it takes four years for an individual to achieve full competency in a technical role. A nuclear specialization can take up to ten years for full competency. As such, we need to start engaging with the next generation earlier and provide opportunities for them to learn about the sector. Thankfully, there exist a lot of different targeted programs out there to build capacity and skills, ranging from job-shadowing, youth hiring programs, and apprenticeship trades programs.

It is also encouraging that the federal government has been very focused on skills development. They have invested tremendously to help post-secondary students gain paid work experience before graduation through its Student Work Placement Program, which we deliver to the electricity sector as Empowering Futures. EHRC has already placed over 500 students with employers across the country. Governments will also need to communicate better and keep employers, educators, and trainers informed about any regulatory changes or policy changes that might affect industry standards and certifications. It is very difficult for employers to hire, train, and educate workers if a policy change means that some of those people will be laid off as a result.

“Governments will also need to communicate better and keep employers, educators, and trainers informed about any regulatory changes or policy changes that might affect industry standards and certifications.”

Across Canada, organizations and industries are going to be competing for the same talent. In the electricity sector, examples of in-demand talent include wind installers, engineers, information and communication technicians, power system operators and more. We need to support the transition of skilled individuals to those roles.

“Right now, tradespeople typically start off between 25 and 28 years of age, which means they have lost quite a number of years where they could have been earning and working towards an earlier completion.”

Over 40% of our electricity workers are employed in the trades. We have a lot of work to do to get better at communicating that the trades have well-paying and rewarding jobs. I would love to see people go into the trades at a younger age. Right now, tradespeople typically start off between 25 and 28 years of age, which means they have lost quite a number of years where they could have been earning and working towards an earlier completion. We also need to break down the myth that trades are only for the boys, and to start that conversation at the elementary level.


What must be done in Canada to improve how we prepare our younger generation for the future of work?

Collaboration between employers and educators is necessary to ensure that students will have the requisite new skills and competencies required to meet the innovation and changes being seen in the electricity industry today.

“Educators need to rethink how they impart these professional skills to students, as well as how they use labour market intelligence, to develop curricula for jobs that are changing as a result of technology.”

We know that many recent graduates fail to thrive in the workplace—not because of their technical skills, but because of a lack of professional skills. Examples of those skills include communication, critical thinking, social perceptiveness, time management, and how to engage with people and your colleagues in an appropriate way. Educators need to rethink how they impart these professional skills to students, as well as how they use labour market intelligence, to develop curricula for jobs that are changing as a result of technology.

That’s why it is so important for employers to commit to providing work-integrated learning opportunities to students. It provides the employer with access to new talent with the latest training in new technologies and business practices, as well as giving the student the opportunity to learn these professional skills before they graduate. We also need to continue breaking down the barriers that exist to enter the skilled trades.

Unfortunately, here in Canada, a lot of parents want their children to go to university or college and see the trades as a last resort. The same can be said for some educators. There is certainly a lot of elitism when it comes to how our culture views the trades, when our youth can actually have great employment opportunities as well as the opportunity to own their own business, if they choose.

Overall the electricity sector has a lot to offer. First, as an essential service underpinning the function of all aspects of modern life, the sector is well-positioned to offer stable and steady employment.

Second, the sector’s continued growth in renewable energy and trend towards ever lower industrial emissions position it as responsive to the climate crisis and it offers young people the opportunity to work in an environment where they can really make a difference. And of course, I spoke earlier to innovation—as the integration of digital and emerging technologies continues across sector operations, there’s a lot to attract people to the sector.