Most utilities move quickly when storms or occurrences create power outages or disruptions in service. Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC) was just as nimble in assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the industry it serves.
In the aftermath of the pandemic shutdown in March, it launched a study on how the industry was coping and by the end of April had completed the Electricity Sector Pandemic Status Report.
Based in Ottawa, EHRC is a national non-profit organization supporting the human resources needs of the Canadian electricity and renewable energy sector.
With a membership ranging from utilities and unions to government departments, consultants, contractors and academia, EHRC’s mandate includes keeping those stakeholders informed on issues and trends that will have a bearing on the industry.
That was the purpose of the pandemic survey, which was conducted from April 9 to 19 across the country using a combination of social media and telephone interviews.
“We did the survey in-house,” says chief executive officer Michelle Branigan, explaining that some EHRC surveys and studies are conducted by polling firms and outside consultants.
Targeted to utility and union chief executive officers or other high-level managers, the survey elicited 57 responses from a range of organizations including generating, transmission and distribution employers as well as consultants, renewable energy providers and research/development firms.
A majority, 81 per cent, of the organizations indicated they have a business continuity plan in place to deal with the pandemic, although continuity and operational plans do vary. A major finding was that the electricity sector has not been as hard hit as other sectors.
“This is due, in part, to the planning and to the planning and risk mitigation processes that are an inherent component of industry operations,” said the survey.
In explaining that statement, Branigan says the very nature of electrical utilities requires them to be prepared for emergencies and unforeseen events.
“The electricity industry is an essential service and our workers are essential workers. Health and safety is paramount and part of the industry culture, so being prepared for emergencies is a natural state of play for this sector. Think of all the storms and accidents that our workers have to respond to. Quite often they are first responders.”
Less positive were employment hiring predictions. Twenty-seven per cent expressed doubt they would be hire Red Seal tradespeople or apprentices this year and 35 per cent anticipated staff reductions if the pandemic continues beyond two to three months.
As the pandemic has continued well beyond that time period, Branigan was asked if those predictions have materialized. Based on preliminary feedback the association has received, the staff reductions may not have been as severe as first believed, although apprentice and summer student co-op hiring “was significantly reduced,” she says.
In mid-October EHRC launched another survey to assess the full extent of employee retention and hiring — or lack of — in the industry. It will be completed sometime in November, she says.
Following last April’s study, EHRC conducted a second survey over a six-week period which examined employee perspectives on remote working arrangements. Released at the end of July, it noted that the majority favoured it and that 95.5 per cent would like the arrangement to continue, at least sometimes.
Many said working remotely is not inherently a challenge. What is difficult is working under the stress of the pandemic and the lack of child care, said the report.
It also noted almost 82 per cent of respondents are “somewhat to very concerned” about contacting COVID when returning to work. Their top concern was that safety protocols, like the use of masks and handwashing, will not be observed.
“But I don’t think there will be a complete pivot to working from home in our industry,” says Branigan. And, of course, not everyone has the option. An obvious example is powerline technicians and other outside staff, she adds.
Measures being implemented to safeguard those employees include the use of heat thermometers, restrictions on the number of people travelling in company trucks and ensuring that work teams which move from site to site are comprised of the same individuals to reduce exposure risks. Other supports for workers include increased premium pay and personal days, plus increased access to mental health services, she says.
In summarizing the main points, intentions and conclusions of the two surveys, Branigan says few foresaw or were prepared to deal with the global pandemic.
“But I believe we (the electrical industry) were much better prepared than others and have again showed the resiliency that the sector is known for,” she adds.
“This is a global crisis that has forced organizations to evolve literally overnight. Sharing best practices and lessons learned will help the industry move forward on a wide range of issues, be that operations, communications, workforce management and/or safety.”