Aging baby-boomers, power plants and dams as well as the relative attractiveness of engineering plus the ramp-up in infrastructure construction are all combining to create a heady mixed challenge for the once-more healthy hydropower sector in the West and in developed economies.

The problems are the natural fall-out from long-term cycles of demographics and economics and, consequently, opportunity for both investment and employment. With their direct relationship, when the era of big spend on hydro and dams drew to a close there was a consequent reduction in jobs in the sector. The tail-off in numbers of skilled people active in the sector has carried through as the workforce ages, and has kept behind the larger numbers from the good days but who are on the home run to retirement.

Now, hydropower is again booming, benefiting certainly from the green credentials of the clean energy sector and pulling in fresh investment for power generation as well as the supplemental storage of water resources for other uses. The demand is there for a growing workforce to help meet the needs of the expansion but also to help handle the existing assets and the forthcoming era of refurbishment projects before the larger group of workers running the show so far move out of the active workforce.

A confluence of cycles and the consequence, for the near-term especially, is a growing drive for more recruitment, training, education and succession planning to help head-off any problems from the anticipated shortages. A wide range of initiatives are being explored or expanded to help tackle the challenges in a variety of countries around the world, and such can be seen in outline with spotlights within the US and Norway, for example. The initiatives encompass both physical processes though more support will come from digital and online systems.

Addressing the challenge

In the north west of the US, Seattle City Light (SCL) will see about half its employees eligible to retire in five years or less. Work is underway on succession planning concepts to help address the challenge of this human wave of leavers with so many skilled and experienced personnel.

Back in 2008, the municipally-owned utility discussed its approach to knowledge management and transfer in an article in IWP&DC. Then, the utility had been looking ahead to the challenges of more than a quarter of its 1600 workers being able to retire in five years or less, i.e. by 2012. Now, three years on, many more senior, skilled and seasoned workers of the baby-boom era are due to be eligible as the next five year window approaches, increasing the challenge though it is one that will be experienced nation-wide, across the entire economy.

When the utility was establishing its focus to help address the challenge, before 2008, areas identified as important topics were training and succession planning. SCL was using innovative hydro operator training and apprenticeship programmes to help identify, capture and transfer critical system knowledge and skills. The utility’s approach involved job shadowing, mentoring, skills testing, group learning and peer reviews to increase the knowledge base to help continue to successfully operate and maintain its hydro assets and system.

It was acknowledged, too, that new skill sets would need to be accommodated with technological changes while also enabling specialised, legacy knowledge remained intact – such as ensuring good understanding of original design and construction for safety of aging dams, power tunnels and penstocks, not least should loading conditions or operating needs change.

Now, building upon that work, a further focus on succession planning is in development, explains Andy Strong, head of the power production division. Presently, an outline draft of a succession plan for the division is out for preliminary discussion, he explains.

The prime focus of the rough draft is to address the question of staffing remote sites, such as the Boundary and Skagit (encompassing Ross, Diablo and Gorge dam) projects, and to a lesser extent the Cedar Falls/South Fork Tolt facilities.

SCL is exploring how best to involve the local communities as much as possible, given that the infrastructure is part of the socio-economic fabric and many individuals may seek opportunities to continue to live and seek work near to where they have grown up, or have been working so far. Educational and apprenticeship opportunities are being explored. Strong says that SCL has a very good apprenticeship programme but it needs expanded beyond Line-workers, electrical constructors, cable-splicers, and others, to better support the requirement of remote sites.

Development of the succession planning approach has some steps to go but the challenge is being addressed, and the strategy energetically pursued. However, as SCL notes, the utility is only facing what the industry as a whole faces – a human wave of retirees. The task is to generate new, incoming waves.

Reaching out

To help support the ongoing, nation-wide needs for training and education in sectors, bodies like the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) in the US, and also farther afield the likes of Energi Norge, in Norway, are pursing development of online, e- and distance-learning systems. The US efforts got underway last year with new offerings being added to the list already available, while in hydro-rich Norway the first packages are in preparation. As ever, content is king.

In its training schedule for this year, in addition to technical seminars in various locations, and including some in recent months that were partly-funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Dam Safety Program, ASDSO is running webinars on various topics. The FEMA dam program is also helping towards the costs of the webinars, which were launched in 2010 as ASDSO’s prime distance learning initiative.

Three webinars were prepared in 2010, each two hours long, and three have already taken place in the early part of this year with a further three scheduled (see box panel). Last year the topics focused on erodability, quality control and permeability, and those run in early 2011 covered basic in hydrology and hydraulics for dam safety, and filter design for embankment dams. Other future webinars, running into 2012, are to cover further briefings on hydrology and hydraulics, risk management, geotechnical issues such as uplift, dam failure modes and emergency action planning.

While they are live broadcast presentations by expert engineers, all webinars are archived for up to a year and, likewise, can be accessed on a fee-payment basis. ASDSO has run the technical seminars since the late 1980s but in 2009 there was greater push for distance-learning offerings.

A drive on e-learning/web-based training is just getting underway for the Norwegian hydropower industry. The sector is already well served by a combination of training courses, seminars, conferences and also study tours. Industry body Energi Norge – through its Energy Academy brand – has around 120 offerings in the technical fields, including dam safety, operation and maintenance of civil, mechanical and electrical equipment, sometimes including collaboration with R&D projects, but there is also introduction to energy and non-technical briefings.

Under development at present in the format of e-learning combined with a workshop are two courses – Project Management, and Risk and Hazard Analysis. As a standalone course there is also an electrical safety offering. All are in the testing phase.

Dealing with training and education opportunities at a distance is also undertaken from the opposite perspective by the Norwegian hydropower industry – study tours. Most recently, a two-day trip to Switzerland had a group of 25 from the Norwegian industry visit the Bieudron high-head plant, hear a technical presentation on Pelton developments by andritz, and visit the LMH lab at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) where there was a talk on Swiss R&D.

Of course, Switzerland itself offers a variety of established courses in hydropower, and one of the forthcoming offerings is a short course on Hydraulic Machines Engineering at EPFL, in September.

The numbers of people working in hydropower in Norway, like many countries, reduced after the late 1980s/early 1990s when less development was undertaken and also because electricity market liberalisation forced more cost cuts, all of which led to fewer opportunities and therefore entrants. Like other countries, such as Sweden, there is a recruitment challenge for sciences and technology. The Swedish Hydropower Centre was established to help address the challenges with support for training and education, and also support research.

However, both Norway and Sweden have strong records of supporting training and education in hydropower for engineers from developing economies. Norway works much through its international-centre-for-hydropower (ICH), and recently Sweden – through Sida and Vattenfall – finished a two-part programme on management of Hydropower Development and Use.

ASDSO Training – June-Dec 2011

June 5-7: ASDSO Northeast Region Conference, Lake Placid, NY
June 14*: ASDSO Webinar: Filter Design for Dams
June 22-23: ASDSO-NRCS Technical Seminar: Emergency Action Planning, Madison, WI
Aug 9*: ASDSO Webinar: RCC for Water Control Structures
Sep 25-29: Dam Safety 2011 ASDSO Annual National Conference, Washington, D.C.
Oct 11*: ASDSO Webinar: Risk-based Decision-making for Dams
Dec 13*: ASDSO Webinar: Topic tba
* Webinars