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Old and gray? I prefer experienced and wise

Wise-04032015My wife and I recently had a week of rest and relaxation during her spring break from teaching. As with my particular career, neither of us NEEDED a break, we just thought that since there was no school for a week, we had the freedom to go somewhere warmer than Iowa.

We went to Tucson. It was our first visit.

The Pima Air and Space Museum provided a wonderful day for being tourists. This private, non-profit museum consists of 80 acres with more than 300 aircraft on display. The entire history of flight is included, from a replica of the Wright Flyer to the Mars Rover.

Its stated mission is: “Creating unlimited horizons in aerospace education through the presentation and preservation of the history of flight.” It accomplishes that mission very, very well.

It became apparent that this particular non-profit is run by a passionate, committed group of senior citizens. The staff includes ticket takers, bus drivers, guides, janitors, aircraft restoration specialists and gift shop clerks. Because it is Arizona, I assumed many were retirees. By observation, it was obvious these volunteers are doing something they love. Many are military veterans.

They are not only veterans, but they’ve accumulated a wealth of wisdom and experience that will be difficult to replace when they are gone. Our bus tour guide had personally flown about eight military fighters he was describing. He had flown many of them in the Vietnam and Desert Storm conflicts. These older citizens obviously had life experiences and the resulting wisdom that, for better or worse, will be difficult to replicate.

I wondered who will staff this museum in 10 years. Many of the current staff will either no longer be with us or no longer able to volunteer.

This reminded me of a similar situation facing many industries, specifically the electric utility industry. In 5-10 years, a number of utility employees are expected to retire. The challenge will be to replace that experience and wisdom in a short amount of time .

How are utilities and other organizations responding?

One utility has implemented a phased-retirement program. Older staff can agree to an extended employment commitment beyond their planned retirement date. The length of time and hours per week are mutually agreed upon. Their role also changes from a traditional engineering or management role to one of a subject matter expert. Their assignment is to specifically pass on as much of their experience and wise counsel as possible to younger staff. I understand this is working well.

Some are partnering with universities and trade schools to provide specific technical training that will become a conduit for recruiting capable, future staff.

Other companies organize mentoring programs that formalize relationships between older and younger staff.

Teaching-fieldSome companies provide incentives to existing staff in order to improve retention rates. Flex scheduling, telecommuting and educational stipends are just some examples of programs that can be helpful.

There are no easy answers.

I would challenge those of us who are older to purposefully consider ways to pass on as much knowledge as possible to younger, less-experienced staff. I would also challenge younger staff to purposefully seek out mentors and learn as much from them as you can.

If everyone keeps this issue up front, and then specifically thinks of ways to pass on accumulated industry wisdom, knowledge and lessons-learned in the school of hard knocks, the industry of the future will be in good hands.

Over the years, the electric utility industry has encountered many challenges. It has also consistently delivered creative and effective solutions to these challenges. I am confident the challenge of an aging workforce will also be met and overcome.

I hope this will be true. I want to go back south, but stay longer!

About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.