With Its “Heavy Lifters” Retiring, a Utility Company Looks to Save its Knowledge

BC Hydro is looking to preserve its knowledge through an aggressive apprenticeship program, one that can run longer than a stint in law school.

October 29, 2004

A t BC Hydro, one of the largest electric utilities in Canada, the magic number is 85. When an employee’s age plus his years of service add up to 85, he is eligible to retire at full pension.

    For BC Hydro, the number 85 represents risk, since this is the point at which it can lose highly skilled employees who are difficult to replace. With more than half of its crucial field-service staff nearing that magic number, BC Hydro is, in many ways, at the forefront of the massive wave of retiring baby boomers.

The heavy lifters
    Vancouver-based BC Hydro is looking to preserve its knowledge through an aggressive apprenticeship program for its biggest division, field services. These are the heavy lifters such as power-line technicians, meter technicians and cable splicers who climb poles and keep the electricity humming. The division has anywhere from 1,650 to 1,850 workers, depending on fluctuations in the temporary labor force.

    As these workers approach retirement age, BC Hydro has been concerned about whether there would be enough skilled and knowledgeable technicians to maintain its more than 90 power plants. "It was no secret that there were a lot of gray hairs around the table," says Olivier Schittecatte, manager of training and development for field services. "So we decided to quantify it."

    Surveys, which began about four years ago, indicated that the average age of field-service workers was 49, which meant that around 2005, a large number would begin to hit the magic 85 mark. Fifteen to 20 percent of field-service employees across all trades are eligible to retire with full benefits over the next five years.

    BC Hydro determined that managers tended to retire immediately upon hitting the 85 number, while tradespeople, such as power-line technicians, stayed on for an additional two years. "There is a strong cultural affiliation to the trade," Schittecatte says. "It is a fairly hazardous occupation, and these people have a strong bond with coworkers and a strong sense of identity with what they do."

    BC Hydro immediately determined the minimum amount of field workers necessary to deliver baseline service, such as providing an acceptable response time to remote locations. It compared that minimum need to the expected retirements--as well as to the number of field-service workers likely to leave for other reasons, such as going to work for contractors--and projected out to the year 2015. Then it developed a strategy to handle the gap.

"Staff scattered everywhere"
    Replacing field-service workers, who are inhigh demand, is not easy. "A Florida power company offered Canadian technicians a $25,000 signing bonus," Schittecatte says. "I just heard through the grapevine that the company flew some of our workers down to Florida to look at communities, but I think they’ll come back when they see the alligators."

    Since certified technicians are so hard to find, the primary way to build the workforce is through a lengthy apprenticeship program, which requires 40 to 48 months of on-the-job training and classroom work. Over the past few years, BC Hydro has sped up its recruitment of field-service apprentices, from 87 in fiscal year 2003 to 118 for fiscal year 2004 to a target of 132 in the 2005 fiscal year.

    The growing importance of the apprenticeship program pushed the utility to implement a learning-management system from Plateau Systems last year. BC Hydro, which earned $3.1 billion in revenue last year, covers a huge geographic area, roughly the size of California, Oregon and a good part of Washington State put together. "We have staff scattered everywhere," Schittecatte says. "We had no easy way to know that an apprentice in the northwest section was on the same path as an apprentice in the southeast section."

    Apprentices, whose beginning pay is 75 percent that of full-fledged tradespeople, are divided into seven programs: electrician, telecontrol technologist, operator/area dispatcher, mechanic, power-line technician, cable splicer and meter technician. Apprentices are rotated at least once during that period, so they are exposed to different parts of the company as well as various kinds of equipment.

    Good coaches are a key element of a successful apprenticeship program. "Someone is always identified as the go-to guy at the local level," Schittecatte says. "Usually, one person acts as coach, but sometimes the whole crew will coach the kid and make sure he is picking up the skills he needs in the location."

    Some locations, Schittecatte says, don’t useapprentices because "the people there don’t have an appetite to be a coach, or the people that want to be coaches are not cut from the right cloth." Nevertheless, if having strong apprentices is key to the future of BC Hydro, then having good coaches is essential to the success of the apprenticeship program.

    Because of this, BC Hydro has integrated its learning-management system with virtual-classroom technology to hold training programs that improve the skill levels of the apprentice coaches. The training helps coaches in such areas as how to set up coaching sessions and how to ask open-ended questions.

    The first trial of the coach-training program recently concluded, and Schittecatte determined that the ROI for the cost of buying seats in the training program, telephone tutoring and a few face-to-face events was 600 percent. That figure comes from dividing the cost of the training by the value of the productivity that the coaches said the training brought, such as allowing them to have short meetings. "For every dollar I spent, I got six back," he says.

High tech vs. basic skills
    Schittecatte, whose training budget is $12 million to $14 million annually, is looking to sharpen the overall focus of the education he provides. "We need to look harder at what we are spending our money on," he says. "It may be that we are spending too much on having people do math refreshers when they really should be learning more about new technology."

    That will be especially true throughout the next decade, as BC Hydro carefully monitors the number of employees who could leave and tries to fill in the holes behind them.