Designing adaptable jobs is opportunity for utility companies

25 May 2017 Consultancy.uk

Managed carefully, extending the working life of people assets can be an opportunity. The challenge for utilities is to design jobs that adapt with the workforce, write James Clement and Alex Graham, both advisors at Egremont Group, a London based management consulting firm.

How often do we hear that “people are our greatest asset”? This sounds good. It might even be true. Typically, the best and brightest are thinking long and hard about how to maximise return on investment from physical assets over decades, if not centuries. Yet our people assets are typically managed on a 12-month cycle.

Working longer

For utility companies, managing people assets is requiring some change of thought. Successive governments have announced a steady increase in retirement age and within the next ten years the state pension age will be pushed back to 67. Many frontline operators such as maintainers and technicians, who are doing physically intense roles, will have to work 15 to 20 years longer than their colleagues do today. This is quite a change from recent times when many colleagues left in their 50s with gold-plated pensions.

For utility companies, managing people assets is requiring a change of thought

This presents a challenge for the utility sector. Frontline maintenance work is often arduous and physical and while the ongoing improvements in health and technology help, even the rosiest predictions do not envisage people in their mid- to late 60s being as physically capable as today’s 50-year-olds.

Losing knowledge

It is not just a physical issue – getting the best from ageing “intellectual assets” is also a problem. As workforce demographics change, the generation who knew the quirks and eccentricities of the operations and network have been retired out – and with them a lifetime of on-the-job knowledge.

To this day, long-retired colleagues are still being rung up and asked to recall the intricacies of the network when something has gone bang in the night. What happens when they are not around any more to call? This is particularly a problem because much of this intimate and intricate knowledge has never been written down.

Designing flexible careers

Managed carefully, extending the working life of people assets can provide a significant opportunity. The challenge for utilities is to design jobs and careers that adapt with the workforce over time.

Putting the right career management structure in place means what is lost in physical labour capability can transition to harnessing the intellectual capital of human assets. Starting this process now, when it applies to a smaller proportion of the workforce, will be much more manageable and a lot less costly than waiting until there is a multitude of employees companies do not know what to do with.

The challenge for utilities is to design jobs  and careers that adapt with the workforce over time

A future-back approach

The first step is to change perspective and take a future-back approach to career planning, plotting the employee journey over decades. With careful thought, long-term planning and training, the workforce will be equipped with the competencies, aptitudes and attitudes to enable them to move into less physically demanding roles – roles that continue to utilise their experience as their lengthened careers progress.

Consciously “re-purposing” people assets (that is, talent) ready for new roles, before they become physically unable to manage the demands of front-line work, ensures that motivation is kept up and vital knowledge is retained.

Providing people with defined late-stage career pathways will help them transition into new positions when the time is right. Rather than facing the headache of an ageing workforce as a costly asset liability, if planned for, these same assets could become a knowledge bank helping to power the organisation into the future.

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