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The many challenges facing the utility industry and how digital technologies help solve them

Flipping a light switch. Turning a water faucet or lighting the stove. Most of us take it for granted that these everyday actions will produce the desired results. We shouldn’t. Like many industries, utilities face a serious worker shortage, one that COVID-19 and the great resignation have only made worse. Add to that the fact that roughly half of the current utility workforce plans to retire over the five to ten years, and it begs the question: how will gas, electric, and water providers preserve critical knowledge and effectively offer training required to keep our critical infrastructure operational?

Utilities rely heavily on the knowledge of their experienced workers to maintain and repair assets. As these workers leave, they take with them institutional knowledge that they have gained throughout their tenure. This knowledge is critical to ensure smooth day-to-day operations and effective training and onboarding of a new generation of workers. And a new generation of workers will require training and guidance.

Furthermore, the modernization of the electrical grid and the rise in solar, wind, and battery power, all require entirely new and increasingly complex systems. With it comes electric vehicle charging stations, battery storage facilities, renewable energy infrastructure, and all other elements of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, a spending bill that will reportedly pump $1.2 trillion into the economy and add 1.5 million jobs per year over the next decade, many of them in the utility sector. As a result, even experienced workers will require significant retraining to support the future grid.

However, training and supporting workers during this transition and in the midst of a global retirement wave is a massive undertaking. As such, the learning approach needs to be fast, easy to deploy, cost-effective, and safe. Moreover, it needs to be agile. The industry is changing rapidly, and as we’ve seen, so are the younger generation’s work expectations. Where a journeyman electrician or plumber might have served their apprenticeship and stayed at one company for decades, studies show that today’s workforce has far higher turnover rates. Utility training will be an ongoing effort.

The solution to all this complexity is an increased reliance on technology. Digital transformation tools such as augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) check all of the boxes just listed. What’s more, they leverage the industry’s shrinking fleet of experienced workers in ways that were never before possible.

One example of this is AR technology-powered headsets. Young workers might look at them as the next level in online gaming, but in recent years they have become a powerful tool that can save utility firms significant maintenance, repair, and deployment costs. These devices, when equipped with an AR and remote collaboration technology solution like Onsight, allow even less experienced employees to go into the field on their own and access the necessary information and people to effectively and efficiently complete tasks. Librestream’s technology equips field workers with secure, real-time access to expert advice, product documentation, work instructions, and much more. Such capabilities maximize the company’s available knowledge pool while drastically reducing travel costs, downtime, and safety concerns.

This is just one example of how companies of all kinds can incorporate new tools and technologies to solve workforce training and customer support problems. For additional information, we’ve put together a whitepaper explaining how the utility industry can leverage these tools, greatly increasing worker efficiency, utilization of available skills and experience, and customer satisfaction.

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