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Energy companies: Five things to think about to get the best of tomorrow’s talent

What to look for in workers in an adapting industry

The energy system is changing. Smart grids, distributed generation, the rise of the prosumer – you can point to any number of trends that are putting the sector in a state of flux. But while energy companies have been fretting about tomorrow’s technology and what it might mean for business models, less attention has been given to the talent of tomorrow: the people who will be putting those technologies and strategies into practice.

So, what should energy companies be thinking about when it comes to (human) resourcing our energy future? The same tactics will not cut it in a different landscape.

In the interest of preparing our students for their nascent careers, we surveyed industry executives across Europe on their future talent challenges and approaches. Respondents included start-ups/niche energy providers, medium energy providers, large energy providers, consultancies and policy makers. Unsurprisingly, there was a range of responses, but there were also a number of common themes that emerged as key future talent considerations for energy companies.

Skills: broader and narrower

One of the major shifts energy companies are anticipating – if not already seeing – is one from a pure utility operation to more of a services firm. Customer-engagement becomes more important and a broader universe of partners bring ‘softer’ commercial skills to the forefront. At the same time, new technologies and applications have encouraged a proliferation of smaller firms, where the need to run a lean operation means all employees need to bring these business skills to the table.

All of which is to say that tomorrow’s talent will need more than pure technical skill. Of course, engineering excellence is as important as it has ever been, if not more, but to stay competitive the sector needs people with more strings to their bows. Yes, you need the expert in designing and building solar arrays, but they also need to work fluently with colleagues, clients, external partners and other stakeholders – often internationally – to package a commercial proposition. This places a greater emphasis on collaborative and team-working skills than ever before.

So, identifying talent with those business skills will be crucial, without compromising on technical prowess. Digital fluency will also be vital as more technologies and work practices are digitised. It will be important to offer retraining and professional development programmes to teach this skillset in the existing workforce, but will also fundamentally change what energy companies look for in tomorrow’s talent.

However, at the same time as industry skillsets broaden, they also narrow. As energy industry technologies become ever more varied and ever more advanced, the level of technical specialism required of new talent rises. Respondents from start-ups were especially mindful of this.

“While our firm is a small start-up environment, there is a need for a broad range of technical skills from electrical and software engineering through to people who understand wave power systems and the wider energy delivery landscape. In addition, we need people with good client facing/commercial skills given the broad supply chain we work with.” – CTO, niche energy provider.

It’s a tightrope: looking for talent with a broadening skillset on the one hand, but increasing specialism on the other. Both employers and employees need to be wary of over-specialism in areas that may not develop as expected, blocking career progression and damaging commercial prospects. The most sought-after talent will exhibit a rare mix of specialism and adaptability.

“With the move towards specialised masters programmes (solar, wind etc.) I fear that should the market change then those graduates will be limited in terms of transferable knowledge if they prefer to focus on niche areas that may not develop.” – Research Director, policy organisation.

However, courses such as InnoEnergy’s Master’s in Renewable Energy (MSc RENE) deliver in-depth knowledge of all major renewable technologies, providing students with the opportunity to specialise in areas that interest them most.

Reputation management

Whether you want to call them millennials or Generation Y, the new generation of talent sees the world – and their careers – differently to their predecessors. One key difference is that they are far more likely to seek work that has a social impact, that makes a positive difference to the world.

And of course, energy companies do. Energy keeps schools and hospitals open and allows society to thrive. But the other key consideration is environmentalism. If a company has been providing that vital energy by burning coal for 40 years, it will likely to be a turn-off for younger recruits.

“We see a major shift in the expectations for people entering the industry over the next five-ten years. Graduates are basing their career decisions on new criteria such as social purpose and are looking at different ways to be rewarded […] Organisations will need to adapt their processes accordingly.” – CTO, niche energy provider.

Energy companies need to do two things to play up their social value as a vital cog in society, and bring their environmental credentials to the fore. If a company lacks positive environmental credentials, then it may find talent to be one of the many challenges they face in tomorrow’s energy landscape.

Expect and facilitate immediate impact

Traditionally, some graduate schemes might see a new hire rotated around a number of functions; learning the ropes before being assigned a fixed role and knuckling down to drive things forward.

However, there is a growing sense that talent will be expected – and want – to make a more immediate impact: to hit the ground running. The pace of change in the energy industry requires this: there’s no time to wait, or the knowledge graduates are acquiring might be out-of-date before they can use it.

This is true for all energy companies, but especially so for start-ups, whose existence depends on pressing their advantage and not missing their moment. Companies will have to hire talent with the ability to make an immediate impact on the business, and then be careful to manage it in a way that facilitates that impact. Care must be taken not to stifle ambitious and impatient talent.

“Given the size of my organisation, we require individuals who are technically skilled but also have a strong commercial and client facing skills. We require our new hires to be adaptable and make an immediate impact. This is really important for such a small firm where each hire is a big investment in both time and cost.” – CEO, niche energy consulting company.

InnoEnergy’s Master’s School knows how important this is. Its courses enable students to learn how business success and commercial awareness go hand-in-hand with sustainability, while building their understanding of business requirements.

And it isn’t just about the business’ needs. As career expectations shift, younger talent no longer believes in or aspires to a ‘job for life’. They expect careers which include a number of different roles, across a variety of different companies. For both their own and the company’s sake then, it is important to get as much value as possible out of their limited time in each role.

Embrace innovation

Great talent drives innovation. But it goes the other way too. The best talent wants to work for innovative companies – it can be a virtuous or vicious circle depending on whether companies get it right.

There are many ways to innovate – and to show it – but one way some respondents to our survey approached it was to create specific innovation divisions, or even separate entities. In many ways this mirrors moves made by some banks, which have opened fintech (financial technology) accelerators that are wholly owned but separately run, avoiding the traditional, slow-moving corporate structure and potentially moving out of the shadow of a parent brand that is perceived as old-fashioned.

Start-ups are often perceived as innovative by default, but this is one way larger energy companies can look to bolster their reputation and performance regarding innovation.

An international mindset

Europe is a fantastic place for energy companies to do business. European economies have shown global leadership on energy and environmental issues, and initiatives like the Energy Union bring countries closer together. However, a host of barriers remain: languages, local regulations, business practices, equipment specifications – there is still a lot of divergence out there.

Therefore, as the energy sector becomes more connected and collaborative internationally, companies will need to reflect that in their recruitment. This means obvious considerations like language skills, but also looking for new talent that has knowledge of different international policies and regulations.

“The future of the sector will be much more global/international in scope and therefore this has a big impact from a regulatory perspective. Even in Europe, there are significant barriers to creating international solutions or changes, be those of language, regulation, tax, consumer protection, etc. Whilst on a technical level the solutions and platforms are in place to support cross-border operating models, the regulatory framework is not.” – EU Policy Director, energy policy association.

Fortunately, this need converges with another trend in the next generation workforce: international career aspirations. Just as more millennials want careers that include various different roles in different companies, more are looking for careers that include stints in different countries. By harnessing that desire, energy companies can help themselves cope with this particular transition.

“With the move towards specialised masters programmes (solar, wind etc.) I fear that should the market change then those graduates will be limited in terms of transferable knowledge required if they prefer to focus on a niche area that may not develop.” Research director, energy policy institute.

Preparing for tomorrow

To be prepared for these workforce trends and challenges, companies need to start thinking about them now. In many cases, this extends beyond HR to top-level questions about the company: how can we innovate, what is our environmental impact? In others, the key lies in working closely with universities and other organisations to put schemes in place to ensure that tomorrow’s talent has this broader skillset when it steps out into the world of employment.

This is precisely the philosophy behind the InnoEnergy Game Changing Impact Programme. Coaching in core business skills enables Masters and PhD graduates to enter the industry and make an immediate, positive impact. For both energy companies and tomorrow’s talent, schemes like this will be key to getting the most out of a career.

Prof. Dr. Frank Gielen is the Education Director at InnoEnergy.

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