By Wallace Jones
Director, Gas Pipeline Safety
Alabama Public Service Commission

The older we get, the faster everything seems to happen. Days, weeks, months and years fly by at record speed. Retirement keeps creeping up on us from every angle and direction. And when retirement does get here, who will be taking over and running the show? What about those who may not be “running the show” but are out in the field making sure everything is running smoothly? We all are faced with the inevitable; we will not be able to work forever. Someone will have to replace us at some time. So, is this going to be a smooth process, or will there be problems to be worked out down the road?

In a perfect environment, there should be someone training to take over for each of us at some point in time. But most of us do not live and work in a perfect environment. Regulations, local hiring practices, financial considerations and other factors usually get in the way of hiring replacements to train for a seamless transition from one person to another. This usually creates a void in the experience level for the new person and a catch-up situation for the workload. This most likely will create an environment where job requirements are not sustained at the proper levels, deadlines are not met and efficiency takes a nosedive. Can we afford these negative situations in our workplaces? Probably not.

The utility industry is experiencing very rapid changes; not only in the aging of its workforce, but in the advent of technological changes. These are two areas of need that most companies must take a hard look at if they expect to keep pace. Let’s take a look at these separate issues:

1)   Aging of the workforce – none of us are getting any younger. We are all aging and many of us are getting closer to retirement every day. We might be in a leadership position in an office, or we might be supervising crews in the field. Either way, our job requires certain attributes that we must have as leaders. Sometimes these attributes just come about naturally, but mostly they take time and training to fine tune. This is not a short-term process. If companies want to stay competitive and keep qualified personnel conducting their business on a daily basis to ensure their customer base is safe, secure and well-cared for, they will have to devise a plan to replace the aging workforce without incurring downtime that will damage their reputations and standing in the communities in which they operate. This might mean hiring replacement personnel further out instead of waiting until the last minute when the “leader” retires and leaves a void to be filled. Budgets might have to be adjusted to accommodate the new personnel. Also, there is no guarantee that some personnel will not leave prior to their “announced” retirement dates. Family illness, workplace incidents, etc. might force someone to leave even earlier than originally planned. This cannot be avoided, but in most instances the replacement should be in place and ready to take the reins of leadership when the older personnel do eventually retire.

2) Technology – Faster than a speeding bullet! Faster than time to the aging – no, not Superman, TECHNOLOGY!. How much more is technology a part of our lives now than it was even twenty years ago? Everywhere you look, technology is crawling, creeping and sometimes just downright sprinting into every facet of our lives. Smartphones, tablets, laptops—all have worked their way into our daily lives in some form or another. How does this equate to leadership? Leaders must be able to adjust and acclimate themselves to the changing environments around them. Technology is one such environment. What some of us used to do on paper pads with pencils and pens is now done on a laptop in the field or on the desktop computer. Smartphones are basically small computers that hold an enormous amount of information in the form of apps that can be accessed to assist us in our tasks. Calendars are set up to remind us (especially the older ones who just might be experiencing memory problems!) of important dates and tasks that must be completed. Meetings don’t have to be face-to-face anymore; now there many companies that utilize video conferencing to conduct meetings. Progress is not only here now, it is moving at a rapid pace that makes it hard to keep up sometimes. But if we want to keep up as leaders in our field, we must learn to adapt to the new technologies around us. We must make use of every tool we have available to be the best we can be. And this even extends to the home. Don’t think your three-year-old grandson doesn’t know how to access your phone, your TV or anything else you might have. They are as “tech-savvy” as we used to be when we used a pencil and a pad to take our notes on.

Our leadership must take the initiative now to look at personnel issues and keep qualified people ready to assume leadership roles in the utility industry. We cannot wait until someone is gone to start looking for replacements; the time is now. “Progressive succession” is the process to be used to ensure qualified people are waiting in the wings to take over when someone announces their retirement, or some type of disaster strikes that leaves a void in the leadership team. And training on new technology should be a consideration for all employees to keep them abreast of all the changes that are taking place. More and more of our daily lives are being impacted by technology. Don’t get left behind, wondering what is happening and why you don’t know what is going on in your world. Get involved and learn what you need to do to be a part of this new, expanding and exciting world.