Commentary: The Utilities Industry Needs More Workers. To Attract Them, It Needs Modern Technology.

By Anita Peterson

It’s no secret that the utilities industry, including water services, is going to have to grapple with a workforce gap in the coming years. This workforce decline has the potential to severely impact the experiences of both the remaining employees in the sector, and water customers across the country, many of whom are already exasperated by outdated systems and limited payment options.

Fortunately, these seemingly separate problems have a shared solution. It’s time for the utilities industry to embrace digital transformation, particularly automation and machine learning. I believe doing so will improve the customer experience immediately, while also attracting new talent in the mid-to-long term and ultimately making the sector more attractive to prospective employees looking for careers in tech-forward areas.

The Great Resignation — and the Great Retiring

The utilities industry has been known to buck broader economic trends, but it was not spared by the so-called Great Recession catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which time nearly 57 million Americans left their jobs. In fact, the Great Resignation had an outsized impact on the utilities sector owing to the fact that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers across job functions in public utilities are older than the average worker in other industries. This may be because many were already considering retirement when the Great Resignation began. It also means that we’re due for another wave of retirements imminently, as 70% of those in utilities are currently over the age of 40; next year, around 50% of the current utilities workforce will be eligible to retire. As the industry loses experienced employees, so too does it lose decades worth of skills and knowledge.

The other side of this coin is that the utilities sector has long struggled to attract millennial and younger workers to replace those leaving, likely owing to a perception of the area as stagnant and inflexible. Industry leaders can be understandably hesitant to adopt new solutions — after all, a shaky transition period at the water company can be disastrous for thousands of customers. Compared to the always-growing and fast-moving world of tech, for example, the utilities industry can seem staid.

Impact on Customer Experience

As vice president of client services at InvoiceCloud, a digital bill payment and billing solution serving utilities and other municipal businesses, I’m focused on helping utility companies strengthen their relationships with their customers — the folks who just want to be able to turn on their tap when they need a glass of water. Most people don’t think much about the inner workings of the organization that makes this possible, but the looming workforce gap has the potential to seriously disrupt the customer experience.

If water providers are understaffed, the remaining workers will likely find themselves scrambling to pick up the slack — and customers will feel the effect of these increased operational pressures. Not only will utility providers’ internal processes slow down substantially as one person is tasked with the workload of three, but the risk of errors both big and small grows as communication is disrupted and added stress erodes attention to detail. The increased number of customers calling in for support to address these issues will find themselves confronted with a weakened customer support team that’s struggling to keep up. Preserving and enhancing customer satisfaction is a crucial objective for providers, especially because customer satisfaction metrics and the behaviors they indicate can influence various aspects of a utility’s day-to-day such as call volumes, operational efficiencies, and J.D. Power ratings. Failing to meet customer experience (CX) standards risks dissatisfied customers — and the impending staffing shortage will make it harder and harder to avoid this frustration. Despite resource constraints and an impending staffing shortage, utility providers must endeavor to fulfill these expectations.

Digital Transformation’s Potential

So, why am I optimistic about the future of power and utilities? I believe the utilities industry is in a unique position to leverage modern technology like automation and machine learning to enhance customer experience — all while simultaneously modernizing the industry’s image, making it more attractive to new talent. Digital solutions like intelligent sensors and equipment and real-time monitoring systems powered by machine learning can enhance operational efficiency, easing the workloads of shorthanded water providers when employment is low, and streamlining processes even with a full roster. Automation technologies like digital twins can continuously gather data from sensors and other sources to update their virtual representation in real-time.

The place where advanced tech can have an impact the fastest is in invoicing and billing — which just so happens to be the most important and frequent touchpoint in a utility customer’s journey. Automation offers numerous avenues to simplify the process of receiving and paying utility bills. Chatbots, for instance, can swiftly address common queries that would typically necessitate a phone call. Paperless billing, for another example, not only saves customer time, but also virtually eliminates the need for manual intervention by utility companies. With online portals, customers can settle their bills in a matter of seconds, reducing the chances of forgetting to check that chore off the list, while saving providers time in managing late fees and chasing delinquencies. Implementing these sorts of digital solutions doesn’t have to be disruptive, which can be an understandable concern among legacy water workers. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms like InvoiceCloud can integrate directly into commonly used customer information system (CIS) database programs like Oracle, making implementation quick and painless. Finally, automating repetitive tasks can significantly decrease the likelihood of errors throughout these processes.

All of these changes can upgrade both the customer experience, and the worker experience. Leveraging digital transformation advances could make working in water services a more attractive option to prospective talent among young people who are increasingly drawn to fields where innovative solutions like smart grids, “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices, and data analytics are common tools. What’s more, cutting-edge technologies often create new roles and career paths within an industry. Young professionals are attracted to opportunities for career advancement and skill development, which may be more readily available in companies investing in digital transformation.

Staring down the barrel of an impending workforce shortage is intimidating, no doubt. But it’s also a singular opportunity. Embracing digitalization and leveraging innovative technologies like AR and AI could help the industry prevent workforce gaps in the future. By leveraging technology effectively and fostering collaborative partnerships, utilities can improve operational efficiency, maintain service reliability, and meet the evolving needs of customers in the water sector right away, today.

Anita Peterson is vice president of client services at InvoiceCloud. She has more than 17 years of experience in client support and relationship management. Prior to InvoiceCloud, she spent 13 years at MCC, an online bill payment company servicing local government and utilities.

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