Are Today's Workers Smart Enough for Tomorrow's Smart Grid?

Are Today's Workers Smart Enough for Tomorrow's Smart Grid?

As the U.S. moves toward adopting a smart grid, is its workforce smart enough to keep up?

That's the underlying question of a new report from the Gridwise Alliance. "The U.S. Smart Grid Revolution" takes a close look at worker trends and issues related to the smart grid. grid.

The overall smart grid concept involves the use of digital devices and information, real-time communication between electricity providers and users, and hooking up devices and products that can interact with the grid, all of which can drive better energy utilization.

That means plenty of new technology, devices and equipment. But it also means a shift in thinking about the grid, business strategies and customers needs.

Smart grid projects are expected to create about 280,000 new positions in the coming years, with about half of those jobs remaining as "on-going, high-value positions." 

With a large chunk of the workforce at utilities nearing retirement (50 percent of engineers will be able to retire by 2015), companies have to adopt a mix of retraining current workers for new skills and seeking out new workers with the necessary background education, skills and mindset.

Retraining workers not only benefits utilities, but can also be a boon for workers since smart grid-related jobs pay 50-67 percent more than existing positions, the report says.

And in the midst of all that, utilities will need to rethink which jobs they need. With the growth of smart meters, which send information on energy use directly to utilities, not as many meter readers will be needed. But companies will need meter technicians, and meter readers can be trained to fill those positions.

As more devices are put in place that link up to the grid, utilities will have a growing flow of information to collect, process and store, necessitating new positions dedicated to those tasks.

Beyond technical jobs, the smart grid will require an overall shift in thinking by managers, as real-time communication of energy use can provide new ways to use energy more efficiently, allow customers or utilities to better decide when devices should be powered on and other new changes in how utilities operate.

Just as employees will need training to get up to speed on the smart grid, so, too, will customers, necessitating customer service workers who are more knowledgable about technologies and can explain them to customers.

The key to moving all that forward are skilled, knowledgable employees. The report calls on industry, schools and government to work together to create the necessary workforce, whether it's through government-funded re-training programs, universities emphasizing cross-disciplinary education, or companies working with educational institutions to help craft curricula relevant to smart grid jobs.

"The importance of education initiatives for training and retraining the smart grid workforce cannot be overstated," the report says. "Existing and future employees alike, and therefore the smart grid effort itself, benefits from active, direct and productive engagement of the industry at every level of education."

Electrical wires image CC-licensed by loop_oh/Flickr