The hopes and fears of more than 52,000 members of the global workforce across 44 countries were recently highlighted by Price Waterhouse Coopers in its 2022 survey. Similar trends were traced across all industries with one of the key findings that, it is no longer simply about hiring workers, but finding the right people and retaining that talent.

At a time when there has never been a more critical need for a strong workforce in the pipeline, the US hydropower industry is facing a shortage. More than a quarter of domestic hydro workers over the age of 55 are set to retire in the coming decade. As greater numbers of ageing workers leave the industry there is concern that a wealth of knowledge will follow suit. Research shows that the average experience level of an engineer in the hydropower industry has grown over time, and that fewer new engineers with less than five years of experience are entering the workforce. If the increasingly important role of hydropower in the US electrical grid is to be fully supported, there is an urgent need for new and diverse talent to fill jobs and spur innovation.

According to Anthony Laurita, Programme Manager for the National Hydropower Association: “The Great Resignation, the term coined to describe the wave of retirements and employee transition during the COVID-19 pandemic, when combined with an above-average age demographic for the water power workforce, shows no sign of abating.”

With the Department of Energy estimating 9000 workers will leave the US industry by 2030, increasing to 13,000 workers by 2040, the fear is that a shortage of workers may impinge on the ability to sustain current operations and develop efforts to support the US’ carbon-free and net-zero-emission goals by 2050.

Challenges and Opportunities

A new report called US Hydropower Workforce: Challenges and Opportunities was published in October 2022. Funded by the US Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), it provides an analysis of hydropower workforce trends and needs based on data collected by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Hydropower Foundation.

“As the demand for workers across the energy sector continues to grow, there is a great need to increase awareness of the job opportunities that result from the role the US hydropower industry plays in our decarbonised future,” the report states. “Competition for workers with other industries and an ageing workforce underscore the urgency to strengthen hydropower’s domestic workforce pipeline to meet the industry’s needs both now and in the future.”

The hydropower industry represents 7.5% of workers employed in the electricity sector, coming in ahead of nuclear (6.5%) but behind solar power (39%), wind energy (14%), and coal (8.3%).

The hydropower workforce currently includes almost 72,500 workers, with more than 7900 working in pumped storage hydropower. This includes workers onsite at hydropower facilities of all sizes as well as offsite workers in fields such as technology development, regulatory affairs, and construction. The numbers mark a reduction of 3300 from 2019.

More work is needed to build diversity in the US hydropower workforce, the report acknowledges, as there have not been any notable improvements over recent years.

Most workers are men (69%) which is higher than the average US working population of 53%. Since 2019, the percentage of men working in the industry has increased by 2%. There are slightly more women working in hydropower (31%) when compared to the energy sector as a whole (25%), but there are far fewer women working in hydropower than the overall working population (47%). There also was a 2% reduction in women in the workforce from 2019.

The share of non-white workers in the hydropower industry (30%) is higher than the US energy workforce (26%) and general workforce (22%). Almost three-quarters of survey respondents indicated that they think the hydropower industry has difficulty recruiting women, minorities, tribal members, and veterans, largely due to limited interest from these groups.

As the report discovered, nearly 70% of the US schools surveyed do not offer hydropower degree programmes and many students are unaware of the importance or relevance of hydropower as a growth industry or a career path. Many students and potential workers have limited knowledge of the hydropower industry and see it as a “solved problem.” 

However, the report states, hydropower is anything but “solved.” With pumped storage development expected to develop more capacity than conventional hydropower in the coming years, an additional 8787 jobs would be required based on the current employment levels at existing facilities per megawatt of generation. These estimates do not include the additional workforce to construct the new projects or domestically manufacture the equipment.

To attract new talent into the industry and fill these jobs, the report suggests the hydropower workforce pipeline could be strengthened by providing more relevant work experiences, hydropower coursework, and hands-on learning opportunities for students.

Indeed, WPTO and the report’s authors say they are already working to address several of the identified challenges. WPTO’s new Hydropower Collegiate Competition aims to spread awareness of hydropower career opportunities and recruit students from diverse disciplines and backgrounds to the sector. WPTO, NREL, and the Hydropower Foundation are also working to fill hydropower workforce and education gaps by partnering with non-profit organisations that support teachers in science, technology, engineering, and maths. They are also developing open-access educational and training resources, tools for job seekers, and hands-on collaboration and engagement opportunities with a focus on diversity and inclusion throughout. 

Furthermore, as the reports highlights, concerns about staff retention, retirement, and turnover have highlighted the need to transfer organisational and operational knowledge to new workers. Such challenges with recruiting and job-readiness of new hydropower workers could be overcome by expanding technical training, apprenticeships, and educational outreach.

Building a more diverse and inclusive workforce will not only bring new perspectives to the hydropower industry, but it will also help attract more workers, addressing recruiting and retirement challenges. Educators and industry are being encouraged to work together to build a stronger, more diverse hydropower workforce that will help the US achieve its clean energy and climate goals.

Global Women’s Network

The National Hydropower Association (NHA) has taken heed of this advice and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition (GWNET) in October 2022. The MOU establishes a framework for the advancement of gender equality and empowerment of women in the energy sector.

GWNET has been working with the World Bank to create a baseline report on the status of equity and inclusion in the hydropower sector. Research was carried out through group and individual interviews, an online survey and literature review. The findings will be finalised by the end of this year and the report will start rolling out at the beginning of 2023. 

Barbara Fischer-Aupperle, co-founder and board member of GWNET, says that the perception of male and females can be very different when it comes to assessing opportunities, salaries, and the advantages or disadvantages of discrimination. 

“It’s interesting that perceptions between genders are different and even perceptions of senior women may be different to those women who are joining the profession now,” says Malcolm Woolf, President of the NHA. “I know as an employer I see the difference in how men negotiate for starting salaries versus how women negotiate for starting salaries. I think there’s a lot that we could learn from each other. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to improve gender equity and the empowerment of women in the sector. I’m looking forward to seeing the report and how much progress we have made, as well as how much more work we still need to do and how we can do that.”

“It certainly will be a lot of work ahead of us,” Fischer-Aupperle adds, “but we can see from the study that some progress has been made. You can also see this from personal experience these days as there are a lot more young, diverse and female faces in the industry which is very important for the sector. After discovering a set of barriers in the research we have established a set of recommendations and are looking forward to turning them into reality and taking the path forward with both men and women.”

Fischer-Aupperle thanked the NHA for their co-operation with the MoU.

“I really celebrate this not only for myself and my organisation,” she said, “but also for the progress we can make to help women become more self-confident and to push more for equity for everyone.