Alleviate Workforce Management Woes With Automation

Richard Stuebi

Power plant automation is alleviating more than just maintenance troubles—it's also tackling workforce management issues.

The difficulties of balancing employee workloads and the drama of scheduling your workforce's shifts can leave any plant manager feeling down. But as is the case in many industries, automation is transforming operations in the electricity generation business. In addition to reducing employee workloads by eliminating low-value or redundant activities, power plant automation is redefining how workloads are shared: It can make staffing easier around holidays and vacations, and more equitably address increased staffing needs during emergencies.

Workforces are also shrinking, increasing the importance of two tasks: hiring an employee base with sufficiently broad skill sets, and ensuring that a full complement of workers with those skills is available for each operational shift. Automating workforce management can alleviate those demands, among others.

Eliminating and Creating Work With Automation

Inevitably, the ongoing advancement of automation lessens the demand for certain roles and skills. At the same time, automation increases the need for other kinds of work to be performed.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics describes how automation is reducing the number of jobs in the power generation field. For example, fewer mechanic roles will be necessary as predictive analytics becomes more commonplace, since many incidents otherwise requiring repair can be prevented. Although routine maintenance and some repairs certainly will still need to happen, many mechanic tasks have been radically simplified with advanced diagnostic equipment, increasingly leveraging robotic or drone technologies, thus reducing the amount of human input.

Meanwhile, as with almost every sector of economic activity, information technologies are rising in prominence at power plants. Computer hardware and software applications have proliferated, which in turn drives an expanding requirement for skilled professionals to provide real-time support to these systems.

Ending Desperate, Last-Minute Coverage Calls

Beyond changing the nature of work at a power plant, automation is changing how operations are staffed and scheduled.

With 24/7/365 operations, plants typically deploy workers in shifts—which can be difficult to organize manually. However, most plants still do. Coleman Consulting Group recently told POWER that perhaps 95 percent of power plants still use antiquated staffing practices, involving manually managed schedules and desperate phone calls to find last-minute coverage. These approaches are generally quite unsatisfactory for both the employee and the supervisor.

Increasingly, automation is being applied to workforce scheduling. Although this doesn't change the intrinsic nature of employment at a power plant, the adoption of a more transparent and flexible approach to staffing shifts should improve employee satisfaction—and perhaps allow power plant operators to run leaner operations.

Indeed, Coleman Consulting Group also told POWER that 10 percent fewer employees may be required at a power plant that utilizes automated scheduling approaches. Consider how automating the call-out process streamlines the last-minute shifting of schedules to backfill for employees who are suddenly unable to work. Automation reduces the amount of surplus labor needed as a buffer to cope with these kinds of contingencies.

Meeting Succession Needs with Proper Training

In short, automation has meant that working at a power plant has become less physically demanding, risky, and dirty. Employment now requires ever-growing competencies in utilizing and interpreting the results from high-tech devices. Consequently, power plant jobs are now more creative and enjoyable than they've ever been.

However, the newly required competencies also necessitate training initiatives. Employers must ensure employees know how to utilize any automated solution that the organization adopts in order to capture the solution's full value.

For power plant employers, increasing utilization of automation will be a competitive imperative. It's not only critical to capturing operational efficiencies, but also to addressing the challenge posed by an aging workforce approaching retirement. As reported by Platts, creative solutions are required to address this issue, and automation will no doubt be a major contributor.

Automation is the future, so it's incumbent on both employers and employees in the power generation sector to make the best of what it has to offer.


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