Mitigating Brain Drain

Facing a wave of retiring boomers, utilities must preserve invaluable institutional knowledge

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It’s likely that every utility has a handful of long-time employees who together form a kind of collective brain trust, filled with invaluable institutional knowledge — both formal and informal — gained from decades and decades of fruitful work. They know what’s worked or hasn’t worked in the past, have an intimate knowledge of processes and protocols and have cracked the code for cutting through the bureaucratic red tape to efficiently get things done.

There’s just one problem these irreplaceable employees pose for utilities: They’re going to need to be replaced. And probably soon.

Statistics show that 10,000 baby boomers hit retirement age every day. Worse yet, that number of people over age 65 is expected to top 88 million — and represent more than 20% of the population — by 2050.

The writing clearly is on the wall: Utilities that don’t prioritize the transfer of knowledge held by these high-value employees run the risk of big productivity and efficiency losses as they continually reinvent the wheel for new employees, not to mention lose the collective intuition to create effective operational strategies.

And retaining this so-called “institutional knowledge” — those hard skills (technical knowledge) and soft skills (relationships with customers and colleagues) honed by years of experience — becomes even more important in light of how often younger employees now change jobs.

In fact, one recent study revealed dismaying news in that regard: On average, millennials stay at jobs for just a scant 2.75 years. And more than 21% of millennials reported changing jobs in 2022 — more than three times the rate of other generations.

Even worse, a 2021 survey of retired boomers, conducted by staffing company Express Employment Professionals, revealed that only 54% of millennial workers possessed either all or most the knowledge needed to do their jobs, compared to their baby boomer counterparts. And an earlier study showed that 21% didn’t share any knowledge at all.

Bridging the knowledge gap

So where do utilities start in this seemingly daunting process of collecting institutional knowledge? They can start by taking an objective look at just how prepared they are for stopping brain drain — assessing where they are in succession planning. A good start would center on a demographic profile of their workforces to see where retirements are likely, as well as identifying turnover trends department by department to help them proactively shore up gaps in institutional knowledge.

And while formal policies and procedures describe how things should get done, they don’t always communicate how things really get done. To fill this gap, utilities should ask veteran employees to add notes to policies and procedures that would help retain efficiency and productivity.

Furthermore, work roles typically change quite a bit as years pass, to the point that job descriptions typically don’t reflect actual day-to-day tasks, duties and responsibilities. So utilities should ask retiring boomers to review and update their job descriptions, as well as point out key tasks and responsibilities, relationships and other job requirements.

Utilities could even create a corporate wiki or intranet portal that would serve as a long-term source for this kind of critical information. Some corporate intranets even provide a search function so younger employees can more easily access critical information.

As one software company’s blog put it, “In today’s cloud-based workplace, there’s no reason why valuable institutional knowledge should vanish when there’s a changing of the guard due to retirement or attrition. Working with retiring boomers before they leave to move their knowledge into a digital format and sharing it on the searchable cloud will keep your institutional data alive and foster business continuity.”

Mentoring is key

Mentoring represents another critical approach. Of course, utilities must first identify which veterans are repositories of the most valuable and important knowledge and which ones are the best qualified to most effectively pass it along. Not every employee makes for a great mentor.

It also makes sense to only mentor high-potential employees. Yes, it’s almost a given that some young employees will use whatever knowledge is gained as a springboard to another job. But since investing in professional development is highly prized by millennials as a key to long-term retention, mentoring them is well worth the risk.

Along with mentoring, utilities could entice employees nearing retirement to stay on as part-time advisers/consultants. Even if they stay on just a year or so beyond retirement, they can accomplish much in terms of passing along institutional knowledge and providing younger employees with sounder footing going forward.

This approach may also provide a surprising benefit by fulfilling a retiree’s desire to remain engaged with a career they loved while still enjoying the perks and freedom of partial retirement. Other similar flexible transitions to retirement also can be fruitful, such as on-call or job-sharing arrangements that give retirees the best of both worlds: more freedom combined with the personal gratification of passing on knowledge and making a difference in young peoples’ careers.

Utility officials just might be surprised at how receptive near-retirees are to such proposals. Another poll from Express Employment Professionals, conducted in late 2021, shows that a majority of employees would likely opt for semi-retirement, either by having a flexible work schedule (79%), transitioning to a consulting role (66%) or working reduced hours with reduced benefits (59%).

Yet only around one in five employees said their employer offers semi-retirement arrangements, according to the survey.

Simplify processes

On the more technical side of operations, simplifying and/or automating certain processes to eliminate redundant practices also can mitigate some brain drain. For example, if it takes members of two different teams at a utility to update GIS and asset management systems, automation may be a cost-effective solution, according to a blog published by Geonexus Technologies.

“Replacing complex, redundant processes frees up time for your existing staff to focus on more pressing issues and eases new staff into the workflow,” the blog says.

The bottom line: Impending retirements are a numbers game for employers these days. Sooner than later, one of those 10,000 boomers that turn 65 every day will likely be announcing plans to retire from a job.

Whether that results in brain drain or brain gain will depend on how well organizations have implemented thoughtful and intentional programs and strategies that fully leverage the institutional knowledge veteran employees have accrued.


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