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Should They Tie the Knot?

Shannon Pierce, Vice President of Growth and Chief External Affairs Officer at Southstar Energy Services, a member of the family of companies at Southern Company Gas, explains why her parent company has decided the two should be wed – and live together under one roof.

Workforce Development – recruiting, training and developing talent – has traditionally been the responsibility of those in Human Resource departments. But its partner, Workforce Planning (the analysis and research companies do to identify workforce needs and how they’ll meet them), lives next door in Operations.

Until recently, not many companies questioned whether it made sense for them to live apart. But at Southern Company Gas, corporate leadership recognized the company could be more effective in ensuring it had a qualified workforce to meet business and operational needs if it changed its Workforce Development model.

Southern Company Gas includes natural gas utilities in four states, each with varying Workforce Development needs. In such a big family, communication between households can sometimes get lost if family members are not intentional, said Pierce.

“Southern Company Gas is a highly effective and lean enterprise,” she said. “In our shared services model, a centralized Human Resources team supported the entire utility enterprise in the area of Workforce Development. Yet, to ensure that local needs were being met, there were various workforce development efforts initiated locally at individual utilities—often secondary to primary responsibilities of leaders. This was in addition to the workforce planning work being done locally.” 

“We only had one person covering all four states, officially. So some of us had what I refer to as a ‘side hustle’ of Workforce Development. Given the criticality of developing our workforce, we decided we needed to make some strategic changes.”

Shannon Pierce

Vice President of Growth and Chief External Affairs Officer, Southstar Energy Services, a member of the family of companies at Southern Company Gas

In a bold move, Southern Company Gas opted to shift Workforce Development out of Human Resources and wed it to its partner, Workforce Planning, relocating the two to a home of their own in Operations, while maintaining a strong partnership with Human Resources. Both functions will now be managed locally at the utility operating level with collaboration more broadly through an enterprise-wide committee. This committee will also collaborate with the electric side of the family, which operates in two additional states under parent Southern Company. The company believes this move will allow it to leverage the experience and knowledge of leaders in each of the utilities, ensure a more effective relationship between the two functions, and provide for increased resource synergies among the operating utilities.

“We’re creating a committee that’s committed to Workforce Development and Workforce Planning, made up of Human Resources and local Operations leaders,” said Pierce. “The point of doing it that way is that we want to make sure we leverage our collective resources. We’ll be able to share best practices and resources across the enterprise, but still have the ability to customize locally based on local dynamics in the states in which we operate,” she said.

It wasn’t as big a challenge as it sounds, said Pierce. “It did not take a lot of time to put it together. Each gas utility had someone responsible for Workforce Planning directly, or had leaders who were working in this space as part of their strategic work. It might not have been their direct job, or part of their primary role, but we could easily add some responsibility to their position because of the need. At Southern Company Gas, we do not let job titles get in the way of getting the work done that is needed for the benefit of our customers and employees.”

Then all they had to do was bring each of these people, from each of the Southern Company Gas utility family members, together into one group that would oversee all workforce needs.

“The way we are structuring it is we will have full-time employees who act locally, but think broadly and collaborate broadly around Workforce Planning and Development,” Pierce said.

“Because we now have a structure where we can come together as a group and talk about our learnings, we realized we were blurring the lines between these two functions in a way that was not allowing us to be as effective as we could be In either space. Now we are clearly defining what’s Workforce Planning and what’s Workforce Development. Having this collaborative structure allows us to do that as an enterprise, versus in silos.”

Pierce provided an example of how a more formalized, enterprise-wide structure with local customization can benefit the company.

“Our previous pre-employment test was a data point and loosely assessed the cognitive needs for roles in Operations,” she said. “The gas company realized that it needed to do more to ensure a qualified workforce for the future. The electric side of the house had lots of experience with pre-employment testing, so the gas team did not have to start with a blank slate. It also was a tremendous help that we have several Human Resources leaders in gas who worked on the electric side of the house.”

“In partnership with Human Resources, a team made up of Operations leaders from each of our gas utilities was formed. This team was able to learn from the electric side of our family and get more insight into best practices around pre-employment testing. Then the team could assess what they learned and see how to apply these practices to the gas utilities. Drilling down even further, the team evaluated how to apply the framework locally. Now the gas utilities will have a two-pronged pre-employment assessment process across the enterprise starting Q1 2021. Candidates will be assessed on their mechanical cognitive ability and natural behaviors regarding safety, teamwork and trust, which are important to our company and industry. Each utility will develop an implementation plan based on its own needs.”

“The team did a tremendous job, but what this exercise taught us is that having a formalized structure for learning and collaboration would allow us to be more strategic across the enterprise, rather than tactical with a focus on periodic initiatives,” she said. “What we would like to do is have a comprehensive strategy for all of gas and foster enhanced collaboration, learning, and continuous improvement with our electric sister companies. All of this sets the foundation and informs how we act locally in this space.”

“We’re taking advantage of the larger scale company that we are, and we’re making positive incremental progress along the way.”