How utilities can prepare for the future workforce shortage

Illustration credit Locusview

By Shahar Levi, CEO and co-founder, Locusview

After the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan passed with strong bipartisan support, a new wave of opportunities and development for infrastructure leaders has been created.

Alongside this capital infusion are some concerns about how this will impact an already weakening construction workforce together with Covid restrictions and what lies ahead for the future.

In order to approach a solution, we must first understand the problem. What are the existing challenges facing infrastructure leaders? Some of the most critical issues are the aging workforce, adapting to new technologies, the lack of skilled workers and labor shortages.

As infrastructure workers age and eventually retire, companies are faced with a loss of critical knowledge and experience. This knowledge must be passed on to new employees who do not yet have the skills that their predecessors had. Acquiring those skills takes time and resources. With the need to plan for new construction projects fast approaching, time and resources are limited.

Change is never easy. While business leaders recognize the need for digital transformation, adapting to new technologies can be difficult. It’s important to take a change management approach and create a detailed plan for adopting new solutions throughout an organization.

Attracting the right talent is difficult in the face of stiff competition from other industries, a negative view of trade jobs, and insufficient educational programs. As more infrastructure plans get underway, the lack of skilled workers will have a big impact on the ability to complete these ambitious projects.

The new U.S. government infrastructure plan is sure to create a massive amount of new projects for modernizing electrical grids, updating aging gas networks and water systems, building new high-speed internet connections, repairing crumbling roads and bridges, and more. All of this will require a plethora of engineers, technicians, machine operators, and other workers. With an already existing shortage of workers and multiple construction projects occurring at the same time, workforce competition will increase.

The future of utility construction is critical to the success of the government’s plan to build modern infrastructures, which will allow the US to improve public safety, innovate and remain competitive. Digital transformation and sustainability are two of the key drivers of change for the industry’s workforce.

Transforming manual, time-consuming processes with digital solutions will continue to be the top focus for industry leaders to increase safety and improve efficiencies. Technology can fill the gap left by the workforce shortage by automating repetitive tasks and therefore reducing manual labor.

For example, project close-outs typically involve substantial amounts of manual work. Handwritten notes, paper forms and drawings are delivered to technicians who must manually enter the data into the system of record. This process often involves phone calls, kickbacks and guesswork to complete. It then becomes the source of incomplete information or errors, causing delays as technicians need to spend more time communicating with crews to fill in missing details or correct errors.

Digital construction technology transforms this manual process by creating a fully integrated digital workflow. A digital job packet is created (which includes the design and work orders) and then distributed to field crews and contractors. They can begin collecting data digitally without filling in any paper forms, which ensures high levels of accuracy while preventing duplicate data entries. The use of Digital Construction Management (DCM) technology can dramatically speed up the process: one utility reported a 70% reduction in project cycle time and a 90% decrease in time required to perform material reconciliation when using a DCM platform.

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Government leaders around the world are investing in sustainability and renewable energy initiatives, such as Distributed Energy Resources (DERs). DERs are changing the way energy is generated and consumed, but they also require sophisticated technologies driven by high fidelity data.

Developing these new energy sources requires new skills that much of the existing workforce does not yethave. A recent EY study found that “60% of the workforce requires reskilling or upskilling,” so there is a significant opportunity to retrain existing workers for the needs of future energy infrastructure projects.

Investments in new infrastructures that support DERs will create new jobs that require new skills. Many will be technology-focused, such as data science, predictive analytics and cloud computing; others will require knowledge about solar energy and wind farms. Fortunately, the industry has a strong network of existing talent who can be retrained and refocused to meet these future challenges. Technology can play an important role in automating manual tasks to free up resources to focus on higher value tasks.

For example, digital as-builting technology has automated previously manual tasks and allowed resources to be directed towards more value-added tasks. Digital as-builting can use GPS and barcode scanning to automate the creation of digital maps in the field that can automate the process of updating the production GIS.

Without it, GIS analysts spend hours manually entering data into GIS for each project. With digital as-builting, this task is automated and allows them to spend more time performing high value analysis such as preparing the GIS for ADMS and other advanced tools.

New jobs will be created to meet tomorrow’s challenges – utility leaders should prepare for this now.

While considering the current and future construction workforce, one aspect that shouldn’t be ignored is the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on infrastructure. Social distancing is now a part of everyday life. While the nature of construction work requires presence in the field, technology can be used to reduce the need for field visits, reduce driving time and increase real-time awareness from the office.

Advancements in Digital Construction Management technology now allow for inspections to be performed remotely. An inspector can view construction progress in real time, review asset data, reports and photos, and communicate with field crews, contractors and project managers, all from a home or office. Confirming design changes, for example, can be done remotely through a guided workflow within a single technology platform, rather than communicating through phone calls or emails back and forth between the field and back office. This ability allows utilities to reduce time in the field and have greater inspection capacity per inspector. A hybrid work environment between on-site and remote tasks has the potential to shape the future of infrastructure development.

About the author: Shahar Levi is the Co-Founder and CEO of Locusview, a digital construction management platform. As a veteran of the Israeli Central Intelligence Research Unit, Shahar was part of a pioneering team that leveraged the use of GPS and mapping technologies into advanced intelligence applications. Shahar served as VP of Business Development at Nortec Group, where he led its acquisition to a multi-billion dollar global company.

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