Gen-X and gen-y: Teaching Them the Business
How to bridge the age gap between older and younger workers in the utility industry.
The utility industry will face its most severe workforce problem since World War II in the next five to 10 years-a massive loss of plant- and job-specific knowledge through the retirement of a large portion of today's utility workforce. This magnitude of attrition has been masked somewhat by slow and steady, economically driven staffing cutbacks, but it will accelerate as we move into the second half of this decade. At the same time, the pool of technical and engineering talent available to fill critical jobs is insufficient to fill the job openings at this time.
These facts already might affect safety, reliability, and profitability throughout the industry, in any of the following ways:
- Increases in the duration of planned and forced outages, as the new hires gradually build expertise and efficiency in their jobs;
- Increased frequencies of forced outages and accidents caused by human error as highly experienced operators retire; and
- Falling productivity in areas of maintenance or operations that require physical strength, agility, and durability. 1
The problem is particularly acute in areas such as transmission and distribution, nuclear generation, and radiation health physics, where highly specialized knowledge is required.
A sensible response to this problem is to develop a formal knowledge-retention program. These programs attempt to collect and document, in some accessible form, the knowledge base of today's workforce. There is a danger, however, inherent in developing knowledge retention programs: that not enough attention will be paid to the needs of the eventual recipient of that information. This is not a small oversight, because the experience and learning needs of the new generations in the workforce differ drastically from those of the generation at its core today. Failure to recognize these differences can cripple a knowledge retention program by causing incomplete knowledge transfer from the current workforce. Such a problem may not be recognized for years, and by that time, the retired utility worker will be more interested in checking the fairway conditions than in checking valves.
What's With These Kids Nowadays?
Numerous articles and publications in human resources, advertising, and pop culture research journals say three generations comprise the vast majority of today' workforce. The names of and exact dates of delineation between the generations differ from source to source, but they generally fall out in the following way:
Born between WWII and the early 1960s: Baby Boomers;
Born between the early 1960s and the late 1970s: GenXers (a.k.a. Baby Busters);
Born in and after the late 1970s: Bridgers (a.k.a. Gen-Y, Millennials, Generation Next).
In her book , Susan El-Shamy points out that the Baby Boomers are accustomed to a learning environment with the following five characteristics: 2
- An even, leisurely pace;
- A style that relies prominently on "telling" and on text-based materials (think of all the three-ring binders of training presentations you have on your desk and in your basement);
- A need to cover topics broadly and in full;
- Linear course flow, outline, and design (think bullets, bullets, and more bullets); and