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It’s Project Time: Do you know where your Contractors are?

According to a 2017 survey of electric and natural gas utilities by the Center for Energy Workforce Development, about 59,000 lineworkers, technicians, field operators and others “may need to be replaced over the next 10 years for retirements.”

That statistic isn’t news for most utility people. Addressing the problem of filling the ranks of retiring workers has been covered by other writers and experts across these same digital pages. Addressing one aspect of the “replacement strategy” is my focus with this month’s column.

As long-tenured company mechanics and lineworkers leave the industry, both the availability of qualified and willing candidates and budget-conscious utilities have upped the percentage of contract resources to offset the reductions. In fact, many utilities are now calling on contractors to share (or lead) the day-to-day work that has gone predominantly to native crews. With a changing mix of native and foreign crews, utilities need to assess how they’re monitoring and tracking (ideally in real time) who’s on their property, so managers can safely and efficiently deploy resources and maintain infrastructure.

As a utility’s partnership with its contractors grows and even adds new contractor companies, utility managers should ask themselves two questions. First, what am I doing to ensure this relationship is good for me and my native crews? The second question for managers to ask themselves as they increasingly rely on contractors is this:  Who’s on my property?

To answer that first question, managers need to make sure they’ve done their due diligence and know that the contractor is hiring, training and promoting its employees in a way that mirrors the utility’s values and policies. The utility manager has to look under the hood and see that the contractor is faithfully following OSHA rules, enforcing policies against drug abuse, maintaining equipment and paying a competitive wage. A good wage prevents turnover. And turnover is the enemy of any replacement strategy.    

As for that second question. With more daily work being assigned to contractors let’s assume a manager has a contract general foreman with seven contractor crews, running various types of equipment and vehicles. Knowing the skill sets of these crews (as well as what type of equipment they have) makes it possible to efficiently assign more work, since the contractor won’t have to bring in additional equipment that could drive up cost. Often this process of clarifying and determining the number of available contractors and equipment for daily and emergency work consists of a host of spreadsheets and flurry of texts and phone calls.

A struggle to get real-time information

Whether it’s a manual process or an automated one, utilities cannot operate at maximum efficiency unless managers can get real-time information including a contract crew’s composition, location, availability and contact details. Often this monitoring job falls to dispatchers or control room staff who will typically spend two to three hours per week determining where construction and maintenance crews are on the system, taking them away from what they do best. I know of one utility in the southwest that’s installing about 1,500 meters per month. Managers don’t have enough native resources to keep up with setting these new meters. The utility has turned to contractors to augment its native resources. As most utilities do, this company relies on a manual process to discern who’s on its property.

An uptick in crew safety, efficiency

Both efficiency and safety would dictate that knowing where these contractors are at all times is a good thing, even the ones not engaged in hot work. For instance, let’s say the utility’s dispatchers learn about an outage three streets away from where a contract crew is changing out a transformer. If the dispatch center knows in real time where the crew is (i.e., at the job site, en route or picking up material), the control room could tell the contract crew’s working foreman to travel instead to the outage, since they’re in the vicinity.

Regarding safety, knowing the location of everyone in the field is important of course. With the real-time notifications and alerts that today’s resource management systems can provide, dispatchers can alert resources in the vicinity of where a line crew (internal or external) is working and vice versa.

While OSHA requires workers to log on to a circuit, crew members usually use a company radio or smartphone. Tracking that information manually to get a big picture view of operations is difficult. The dispatch center is, of course, monitoring the entire circuit. Add to that the location of all other resources not required to log on, and the task can become more difficult. But with technologies that broadcast resource location and marry that to work orders, a dispatcher could:  see everyone’s location on a map; know what work they’re supposed to undertake; and, alert them to the presence of others in the area if they log on to the wrong circuit.

With the special relationship that contractors and utilities have today, utility managers need to know where everyone is on the property. Nowadays contractors are practically part of the company workforce. Utility managers owe it to themselves and their contactors to look into software tools that allow multiple resources in the field to be efficiently dispatched, monitored and reported on.

About the author: Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operational Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at [email protected]