Preparing a reactive workforce

Dr Stuart Johnston

As the energy sector faces major changes to the traditional supply system, energy networks are responding by undertaking a rapid transformation to ensure the industry takes on board the systems, programs, practices and standards of Australia’s new energy future – some of which are still evolving. ES&D catches up with Energy Networks Association’s Dr Stuart Johnston to talk about training today’s engineers for tomorrow’s energy landscape.

There is high demand for a skilled workforce in the energy sector. On the ground level, a national sparkie shortage is a real and growing problem. Among the top tier of the industry, an ageing workforce will see many senior engineers, project managers and executives move towards retirement in the next five to 10 years.

But there is a bigger issue at hand. The network is changing and, with it, the demands and expectations of its operators.

As the peak national body representing the country’s electricity transmission and distribution and gas distribution businesses, Energy Networks Association (ENA) takes the future of electrical and energy training very seriously. It recognises huge challenges lay ahead for the industry in terms of moving towards an efficient grid and  low-carbon future. Nonetheless, ENA’s senior program manager, asset management, Dr Stuart Johnston is confident the industry can, and will, keep up with a rapidly evolving network if it builds on the existing skills of the workforce by adding new competencies to address the requirements of the future grid.

“The industry has currently got wonderful training systems in place at the moment, which cover the industry in its traditional form. However, with the networks coming under increasing pressure to transform rapidly– faster than expected –we’re identifying the new skills that will be needed to take the industry forward,” Stuart says.

“What we do in the next 10 years will be critical.”

He’s referring to a workforce with defined skills and behavioural traits, which will be just as at home with traditional industry skills, as with the new skills required for smart grids, environmental standards, microgrids and the barrage of disruptive technologies that will eventually culminate in what industry analysts have coined the “post-grid future”.

Importantly, Stuart says tomorrow’s leaders will be required to interact with stakeholders in an entirely different way.

“It’s not just the technical issues of a changing network we need to address. We also need to look at the issues in and around the sectors’ work procedures and processes, including how the system itself will actually work and how to interact with its various operators and stakeholders,” he says.

“The standard businesses that are in the sector today won’t be the only players. Even now we’re seeing new technology businesses popping up around the periphery of the sector, vying for attention. So, we’re going to have to know how to interact with microgrid operators, individual homeowners, tech startups and so on.

“The entire dynamics of who is in the industry will change, so we need to design new training modules to address those gaps.”

Stuart discussed this issue in depth at the recent Energy Skills Australia (E-OZ) national conference. ENA enjoys a strong relationship with E-OZ, the government’s industry skills council for the energy sector trades, which Stuart is quick to thank for assisting the industry in developing skills training standards, the energy skills passport, transferrable skills, refresher training and emergency training now standardised across jurisdictions.

He says the work ENA and its members are doing with universities through the Australian Strategic Technology Program – which includes placing engineering students on ‘real world’ industry projects – is giving the next generation skills in renewables and smart grids that will come back into the industry in a just few years.

However, it’s not a case of in with the new and out with the old. The senior end of the workforce may be ageing but the benefit of having a relatively stable industry for so many years means there is a legacy of experience. These skillsets, knowledge bases and attitudes still have an important place in Australia’s new energy landscape, if they work to remain relevant through well-thought-out refresher training programs.

“The challenge in this area is getting industry to recognise it can’t simply build a one-off training package. Curriculum needs to be continuously amended, changed and updated to keep up with what’s happening in the network, whether it be new technology or changing consumer behaviours,” Stuart says.

“This is where partnerships with bodies such as skill councils like E-OZ is imperative. Industry can identify the skills that are needed to move forward and our partners can assist us in developing accredited nationally recognised training packages; and processes to get our current and future workforce work-ready. This is how we future-proof ourselves.

“We need to work with our key stakeholders in the industry to find out what we are going to require as a collective whole. We can not stay as an island; industry needs help with training requirements to build a better, more educated, more reactive and prepared workforce for the future.”

In the new energy future, Stuart foresees broader job descriptions, with ample opportunity for workers to move between roles within the sector. Changes to the workforce makeup may see engineers, communication and IT staff, trades people and contractors transferring their skills between generation (traditional as well as renewables), distribution and transmission companies. Alternatively, they may have increased scope to move upwards, downwards and sideways within the one organisation.

“No doubt, IT and systems professionals will play an increasingly prominent role. We know the skills to connect new systems to different places will become more important. It’s just too early to know exactly how these systems will work – in terms of interaction between a grid and a microgrid, for example – or who will own and maintain these assets,” Stuart says.

“This is why, instead of coming up with a new system and then evolving the training to suit it, we need to establish a system in parallel to where we go with network transformation. This means adapting our skillsets, with both the skillsets and the network needing to adapt together.

“I know it can be quite hard to do this, particularly with national competencies, but it can be done.”

There are some standout international examples of how to prepare a workforce for such a monumental shift, with the Germans and their high penetration of renewables in the lead. California and its rapidly transforming electricity network and the UK are not far behind. Nonetheless, Stuart is quick to add Australia to the list.

“In one sense Australia is currently leading the way because some jurisdictions have the highest installation rates in the world of household PV into the grid at the moment. Some of our jurisdictions like Queensland and to a lesser extent South Australia and NSW have had to react to this high level of penetration and try to adapt – so they are trying to meet that requirement at the moment,” he says.

At the end of the day, we can certainly look overseas for examples of how to move forward, but because of Australia’s unique energy landscape, an energy solution can’t just be imported, it needs to be developed here. As Stuart stressed at the E-OZ conference, industry needs to lead the way. It needs to facilitate, encourage and promote education, research and training in its own backyard.

“Yes, we could try to wait for other people to go down this path and copy their systems, but we can’t afford to do this, we don’t have the time to waste. Things are transforming so quickly here, we have to make this a high priority for ourselves and the energy sector as a whole. Yes, there are a few things we can learn and capture from overseas markets, but the main thing is we need to work on this ourselves as an industry priority and start developing this and moving forward,” he says.

“It will certainly be a challenge to evolve a body of knowledge for a future grid whose new systems, programs, practices and standards are still evolving or being developed, however, we don’t have any time to waste.”

About Energy Networks Association program manager energy and gas infrastructure Dr Stuart Johnston

Stuart joined the Energy Networks Association in May 2014 as the senior program manager for Energy Infrastructure where he is responsible for managing ENA’s Asset Management program and formulating industry policy related to asset management matters. Stuart has been involved in the electricity industry since 2001 when he joined TransGrid, NSW’s high voltage electricity transmission organisation.

At TransGrid, Stuart held the roles of property and environment manager for TransGrid’s Southern Region, and from 2006 to April 2014, he moved to Sydney to become TransGrid’s Corporate Environmental Manager. Prior to joining TransGrid, Stuart had 15 years experience in working in environmental management, teaching/lecturing, and research with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, NSW TAFE and the Australian National University.

Stuart completed his PhD thesis at the Australian National University on ecosystem management and sustainability and has published a number of scientific and industry papers and guidelines.

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