Modernizing the grid could lead to surge in green jobs

Renewables and cybersecurity issues offer challenges and opportunities

With the nation’s infrastructure aging, the utility sector has had to look forward. Deemed essential by the federal government at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the industry and its workers are critical to keeping the country functioning—now and after the pandemic. In addition to being critical to the country’s operation and security, utilities could potentially be a big source of new green jobs in the coming years.

The immediate impact of COVID-19 has been a significant job loss in the green energy industry. Nearly 600,000, or 17.8 percent, of clean energy workers have lost their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic. Despite the setback, the World Resources Institute (WRI) says government investment in green jobs could help the economy bounce back.

It calls for modernizing the electric grid, renewing the nation’s transportation infrastructure, and investing in mass tree restoration as ways of creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. In a WRI report, Devashree Saha, a senior associate, says, “lawmakers have the opportunity to ensure that we build back better, in ways that create millions of well-paying jobs and advances a low-carbon economy.”

Challenges and Opportunities

Industry professionals consider “renewables, sustainability, and the environment” to be the top issue in the electric utility industry, according to a February survey by Utility Dive. The topic includes fossil fuel plant reductions, cutting emissions, increasing rooftop solar and electric vehicles, water conservation, and more. The report says almost half—46 percent—of the more than 566 respondents consider the issues to be both an opportunity for adding new jobs and a challenge.

Another issue within the utility industry is the knowledge drain as an aging workforce approaches retirement. Barry Worthington is executive director of the United States Energy Association (USEA).  He tells WorkingNation that COVID-19 will not speed up retirements because the pandemic has hit the economy hard and retirement accounts have shrunk. But he does say the industry is working on replenishing its worker pipeline.

“This is an issue we’ve been having to deal with and we’re very focused on workforce development, both bringing people from other industries into the power industry and attracting entry level professionals. Our industry is working very closely with junior colleges and technical schools and the trade unions for that matter at getting people in front of programs for linemen and things like that.”

Worthington says the utility sector is vital, so it’s well-prepared, even when a health crisis strikes. “Electricity is such a key component of the economy and everything else rests on that. So, every operating utility is going to have a staffing plan where there’s going to be at least two or three people prepared to take over every key position. Our industry has plans and procedures so that we’re well prepared for these types of things.”

Digital Skills Transformation

Looking ahead, the utility sector will be digital-focused, according to a Deloitte report Digital Innovation: Creating the Utility of the Future. The survey says, “Ninety-five percent of respondents indicate that digital transformation is a top strategic priority.” The survey also puts greater focus on cost-cutting, protecting infrastructure, and diversifying power sources.

Deloitte says the utility worker of the future will have updated skills. According to the report, “The tech-savvy employee relies on connected yet independent systems, often collaborating with bots that integrate AI to accomplish tasks. Most processes are automated, freeing employees from routine, and sometimes dangerous, tasks and enabling them to focus on performing highly complex, customized, and unpredictable work.”

The report continues, “Their performance is measured in real time, as is learning and development. Through new approaches such as design thinking and employee journey maps, employee experiences are understood and improved.”

Deloitte says the growing trends of electrification, decarbonization, and decentralization will likely create more opportunities in the future. The report says, “And that future could be bright.”

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