Workforce renewal: the greatest challenge facing clean electricity and national carbon reduction targets

I call myself an energy and environment consultant, a specialist and expert in the nexus of energy technology processes and operations and government energy and environment policy. That is the ostensible focus of most of my professional work. But there is “dark matter” and “dark energy” in this work. It involves the humans I work with. Like real dark matter and dark energy, the human aspects of my consulting work constitute the vast bulk of my day to day interactions and considerations. These day to day interactions and considerations revolve almost entirely around the question of “What human activity is moving or could move this project or organization forward, and who is doing or going to do it?”

The skill sets that keep Ontario clean. Most Ontario electricity comes from nuclear plants, which puts these skill sets, plus the ones required in major special projects like refurbishments, at the forefront of workforce renewal efforts.

However, unlike real dark matter and energy, the human aspects of my consulting work are not a mystery. The central problem, in every project with which I am now involved is: getting good people into a position that will move the project or organization forward, while keeping other good people who are already moving projects and organizations forward employed in that capacity. That is a very large part of what I do, and it is the same for anybody else who has a stake in the outcomes created by organizations of people.

In industries relying on very high levels of technical expertise, such as the energy industry, it is so important to solve this central problem that attracting and retaining skilled workers occupies, or should occupy, a large and increasing part of senior executives’ attention. This is because the pool of skilled workers is shrinking. And the pool is shrinking because the skilled workforce is ageing. Managers who like me spend their days running projects by ensuring the skilled people currently working on these projects keep doing what they’re doing are feeling a terrific squeeze. On one side, the skilled people know they are in high demand and can shop themselves to the highest bidder, which puts upward pressure on labour costs. On the other side, that same skilled workforce, even if it remains in place, is close to retirement. Organizations everywhere, and especially the energy, and especially electric utilities, are scrambling to avoid or at least survive the effect of this squeeze, which has been described as a demographic tidal wave.

This is a serious issue, and not just for electric utilities. Failure to effectively address it will have bad implications for regional and national economies, as well as for the global environment. Generating and distributing electricity is a highly technical enterprise, consisting of distinct but interlocking parts that must always work in perfect synchronicity in real time. This requires a very skilled and specialized workforce—all the more so in jurisdictions like Ontario that make electricity using nuclear fission.

On projects where I am fortunate enough to have an influence in how this issue should be handled, the strategy has been to focus on internal workforce development, in which senior skilled workers—either employees or consultants—mentor younger workers. Our explicit aim in one particular project was to convert, as rapidly and effectively as possible, the raw technical talent of the most promising young recruits into mature organization-level bench strength. This was done systematically by evolving, in direct collaboration with the recruits and mentors, staged statements of qualifications, closely tied to frequent performance reviews.

Success in this is directly related, I can tell you from sometimes painful professional experience, to the organization’s ability, and willingness, to develop that internal bench strength. If ability and/or willingness are high, then you are cooking. If not, then you are a de facto farm team—i.e., a cheap developer of top talent—for other organizations.

There are several critical factors that produce success in this methodology. The quality of the mentorship program is of course one of them. The recruiting process is another. For both these components, getting the right people at the outset gives your effort a much better chance of paying off.

Recruiting the raw talent starts at universities and colleges, and involves close collaborations with professors and instructors who supervise low-cost research projects. These projects give excellent opportunities to see which students respond most effectively to challenges beyond the research itself. How do they work with others? What leadership skills do they exhibit? How attuned are they to the industry partner’s business considerations?

There are low-cost ways to get fast answers to these questions. The recently announced federal government training program is one of them. Other federally and provincially supported research grant programs are another. Utilized creatively and systematically, these programs can make all the difference.

Nowhere is this more important than in the Ontario nuclear sector. Nuclear plants are the Number One reason Ontario’s electricity is clean, and electricity makes Ontario viable as an economic player. Right now (just before 8 a.m. on Wednesday April 17), nuclear plants are providing over 60 percent of Ontario’s electricity. They are the Number One reason Ontario’s CIPK (carbon intensity per kilowatt-hour) is 100 grams. See tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar.

To keep Ontario’s CIPK at this low level, the provincial nuclear plants must maintain their excellent operating record. That means maintaining the skilled workforce. So maintaining and growing the nuclear workforce is critical to the province’s, and country’s, long term economic and environmental goals.

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10 years ago

In order to attract students to the nuclear industry we need to help clarify the direction that nuclear is headed. That means showing that the support is strong for innovation in the nuclear industry. Recent events can make us both encouraged and discouraged. I am encouraged by companies like Bruce providing a quality ad campaign. I wish I could say the same for south of the border. Let the model of Ontario’s nuclear industry serve as an example for the rest of the provinces. How can we measure Ontario’s success? Statistically Stephen has pointed out the much improved reduction in carbon dioxide and the methodic phasing out of coal. I would like to know if the economics of it all is measurably improved. I see that Oshawa’s UOIT has 300 students in the only province that offers a degree in Nuclear engineering. If the provinces cannot learn from Ontario’s example I expect all of those graduates will need to start looking outside of Canada for work. I hope not.