What’s less talked about is where the industry is going to find the skilled workers needed to carry out what the Conference Board of Canada calculates as $347 billion in required public and private investment between now and 2030.
Investment is expected to peak over the next few years, and this is creating thousands of new jobs at a time when the existing boomer workforce is retiring in record numbers and the oilsands are soaking up the skilled labour pool.
“We’re going to see a big turnover within the next five years,” said Michelle Branigan, executive director of the Electricity Sector Council, a government-funded organization that monitors human-resource trends in the sector.
“Right now we’re looking at about 45,000 people who are expected to be moving on by 2016. That’s almost half the workforce, which is absolutely huge.”
It’s not that the industry didn’t see it coming. Four years ago, Hydro One CEO Laura Formusa called it “one of the single greatest human resource challenges our industry has ever confronted.”
But the situation has become even more critical. This male-dominated industry realizes it has to cast a much wider net in search of new recruits, meaning tapping into under-represented groups such as women has become a high priority.
Branigan recalled a speech she recently gave at an event of 300 people who work in the electricity sector. Only five of them were women, a “completely skewed” situation.
Where women represent 48 per cent of the national workforce on average, that figure drops to just 25 per cent in the electricity sector. Even then, women tend to be in human resource, marketing and communications roles. The numbers drop when we zero in on “critical areas” that require electrical engineers, technologists and technicians.
Part of the problem is awareness, said Branigan.
“Young girls and women don’t have any idea of the careers that are out there. They don’t think they can use their IT skills, for example, to manage the flow of power on the grid. We need to do a better job of building excitement around the opportunities for women.”
That’s exactly what the council is trying to do. Late last month, it put out a call to industry stakeholders — employers, colleges and universities, government, and labour groups — asking them to champion the cause by becoming part of a Canada-wide initiative to better “attract, engage and recruit” women.
“The response so far has been overwhelming,” said Branigan.
Part of the plan is to improve messaging in high schools, colleges and universities, and raise general awareness of opportunities in the sector for women through media campaigns, particular social media. There will also be an effort to boost internships specifically geared to female students.
“We need to drill down to that younger level, even getting kids younger than high school interested,” said Branigan, adding that part of the attraction will be areas such as renewable power generation, such as wind and solar, and smart grid technologies. “That seems to resonate more with young people. They want to work in an environment of sustainability.”
Ultimately, it’s all about growing a labour pool from which talented women can be plucked. Not to suggest it’s going to solve all of the industry’s problems. Those retiring boomers are taking with them many years — decades — of built-up skills and institutional knowledge that can’t be learned overnight.
Power generators, transmission companies, regulatory agencies and others will lose crew leaders and senior managers who can’t be replaced with fresh recruits, male or female, just coming out of school. It will remain a huge challenge for the industry to find people who have enough experience, at least five to 10 years, to safely fill those roles.
“There’s a long lead time for developing competency within our occupation, so that’s something that has to be taken into account,” said Branigan.
Still, if you’re a young woman strong in math and science looking for a stable, well-paying career path, and in an industry looking to modernize with cleaner, greener technologies, this may be for you.
The electricity sector could use a woman’s touch.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.