First publishedin ITS International
Although some of the US's older infrastructure is over-enginerring by modern standards, it still needs regular maintenance
Geoff Zeiss of Autodesk talks about the convergence going on between GIS and other software systems which will revolutionise the design and construction of nations' utilities
The issue is that we're getting old. But forget the discovery of body hair in places it never used to be, whether or not to dye, contact lenses versus glasses - in fact, put aside entirely the decision to age gracefully or outrageously; the personal implications pale next to the effects on wider society.
Faced with the problem of how to address the imminent retirement of large numbers of experienced technical personnel, utility companies are in crisis. Boom-and-bust recruitment over several decades has resulted in many cases in significant gaps emerging between the current senior and follow-on generations of engineers, with all that that entails.
Geoff Zeiss, director of the utility industry program within Autodesk, Inc. offers some illustrations of the problem. He cites figures from a recent Geospatial Information & Technology Association (GITA) conference session on aging workforces. Although the figures he cites are from the power and water industries many of the same issues also confront transportation, he says.
"Some 42 per cent of Texan electricity distributor Oncor
's technical workforce is eligible for retirement over the next 13 years. Japanese company NTT Infranet
will see 50 per cent of its technical workforce become eligible in the next decade. These companies are in better shape than most I know; for instance, the average age of the workforce at Toronto Hydro
"At Oncor and NTT the average age of the workforce doesn't look so bad by comparison but if you look deeper in both organisations you see two distinct cohorts. At Oncor, there are around 70 engineers in the older cohort. With an average of 25-30 years' experience, these are guys who've worked at the same company their whole lives. Oncor also has around 60 engineers in its younger cohort. The average number of years' experience there is 2.5.
"At NTT the situation is broadly similar, and it reflects a tendency within utility companies to go for decades without hiring and then be faced with a situation of having to hire like crazy as a bow wave of retirements approaches.
"This is true across the globe, in both hemispheres. The projections are the same for the whole of Western Europe, although the situation is slightly different in Eastern Europe. Even China, by 2020, is predicted to have problems.
"It's not just a population issue, it's a participation issue. The US and Canada, for example, both have growing populations as a result of immigration yet these issues remain. They've been the focus of some very high-level focus groups within such organisations as the IEEE. There are some big issues associated with attracting young people to engineering disciplines.
"Nonetheless, even though the problem has been identified, utility companies are expecting tail-offs in both experience and employee numbers. NTT currently has 1,700 employees and expects to see that fall to 1,400 by 2016."
Solution 1: education
"The number of soon-to-be-retired employees is widely known. In the US, for example, 33 per cent of electric power linesmen are expected to end their working lives by 2012. That's causing some interesting things to happen. The utility companies are waking up to what needs to be done and putting in place education schemes designed to catch new blood at both the university-trained engineer and skilled trades levels.
"In terms of the latter, the US has never really had a good apprenticeship programme; we've tended to raid the UK and other countries when we've needed talent. Now, though, major utility companies are actively recruiting from high schools specifically for the electric power industry.
"That's bearing fruit, not least because with the shortage of trained personnel the utilities sector can literally be a job for life. Every year, City West Water, which provides waste water services for the city of Melbourne in Australia, recruits young people from high schools to be waste water system designers. The interesting thing is that they've managed to retain them - they haven't gone elsewhere. In many locations in the US, though, utility companies are being forced to look at ways to retain people beyond retirement age because we simply can't afford for them to stop working - and that's even with current discussions over increasing the retirement age to 69 or 70."
It's not just the US's infrastructure which is aging. so is the workforce which is maintaining it(Picture: Rick Tisch)