A Strategy in the Never-Ending Tug-of-War for Talent

As one of the largest utility companies in the world, National Grid hires thousands of people every year. In such a fast-paced and competitive environment, Keith Hutchison’s game plan for talent is raising the bar.

Keith Hutchison, SVP of US HR and Chief Diversity officer, National Grid

On the southeast coast of Scotland, just outside of Edinburgh, is the small town of Dunbar, a quiet and scenic suburb with a population of about eight thousand. Even though he retired in 1989, it’s safe to say that many residents there today would still know Keith Hutchison’s grandfather, Walter, just by his affectionate nickname, “the gas man,” as he helped residents connect to energy sources, servicing their gas boilers, performing renovation work, or repairing any faults in the lines.

Back then, the population of Dunbar was roughly half of what it is now. But today, utility employees who followed in Walter’s footsteps still have an impact on residents, and that’s what motivates Hutchison every day in his role at National Grid, an international electricity, natural gas, and clean energy company.

“I remember thinking, what other company, what other organization could you work in that has such connection with all your neighbors and your community where people remember you for the job you did years after you retired? For me, the opportunity to work for communities in a completely different capacity was my motivator,” Hutchison says. “I saw how important that industry is based on my experience of watching my grandfather.”

Now, as the senior vice president of US human resources and chief diversity officer for National Grid, Hutchison has observed tremendous changes in the utility industry since his grandfather retired, especially when it comes to the war for talent in today’s workforce.

National Grid employs four generations within its workforce. Hutchison says that statistically, millennials will transition to thirteen different companies throughout their career. Further research shows that someone born today has a 50 percent chance of living beyond one hundred years old, meaning what works today for one generation can evolve significantly in a relatively short amount of time, he adds.

It’s why Hutchison emphasizes his team’s employee experience strategy. Over the past two years, Hutchison and his team have invested in building strategic workforce planning capability, enabling Hutchison to create a workforce strategy for the US business.

Hutchison says there are three keys to the employee experience strategy, all of which are designed to help National Grid anticipate any challenge with a proactive solution.

Keith Hutchison National Grid

Develop Strategic Workforce Planning 

National Grid will be making about $10 billion in capital investments over the next three years, so Hutchison needs to be able to identify the skills needed by the workforce, as well as how many employees are required. Then, having defined that volume, Hutchison’s talent acquisition team will determine prioritization.

That could mean looking internally to see who may be planning on retiring and identifying if they would like to work longer, or looking to the market as well as National Grid’s learning academy for technical training and development of new hires. It also means looking to new advances in artificial intelligence and automation, if applicable.

“In the future, we’ll be looking for what will be automated or what we should be looking to automate that can be done with AI or digital means,” Hutchison explains. “Every year, we refresh the strategic workforce plan. We also have been able to use the strategic workforce planning to say we need to increase our headcount due to workload, and here is the data that supports where these people are going to come from, the resources we need to compensate them, and how much we’re going to have to pay for training and development.”

The Answer Lies in People and Predictive Analytics

One of the main areas for predictive analytics for Hutchison is being able to track employee movements on a monthly basis—number of hires, lateral moves, promotions, etc.—in order to develop strategies. For example, turnover rates are higher in National Grid’s call centers because many employees tend to be younger and see the role as a stepping stone in their careers.

But using people and predictive analytics, Hutchison can see if one call center has a higher turnover rate than others and what the root cause may be, such as being located in a college town with younger demographics. “I can make an investment case to the US executive that in these areas we should over-recruit so that we have coverage for our customers and still be in accordance with our key performance indicators,” Hutchison explains.

Using predictive analytics also means identifying what future benefits National Grid wants to incorporate. Analyzing turnover can identify if employees left based on benefit offerings, pay, or environment.

“Being able to feed all of that data into our people analytics groups allows us to come up with insights of what we might want to do differently that could curb a trend that may be more negative than positive,” he says. Hutchison adds that National Grid is still in the early stages of predictive analytics, but with implementation, there’s the possibility to develop an HR platform so that all of the data could be housed in one system.

Deliver the Best Employee Experience

The concept of strategizing the employee experience is still relatively foreign for many organizations, Hutchison says, because there isn’t a large amount of research on it. Now, Hutchison and National Grid are not only paving the way for delivering an outstanding work experience, but also showing how that directly impacts customers, differentiating National Grid from competitors.

To ensure that success, it starts with the onboarding process. Hutchison discovered that newer hires—those who had been with the company for less than two years—had a higher turnover rate than those who had stayed longer. Now, onboarding at National Grid is a process that can last up to eighteen months, which is part of the new orientation program that launched last year.

“The goal was that every single employee who starts at National Grid has to attend orientation on their first day of employment, and that has to be as close to 100 percent as we can get it,” Hutchison says. “The challenge I got was, ‘How are we going to do that when we’re bringing in people every day of the week, every week?’ I said, ‘Then we stop doing that. We hire them in waves. So, we will only bring people in every other Monday.’ Creating a positive employee experience, for me, is far greater of a priority than bringing somebody in to have a terrible first few weeks because they’re trying to learn about our company and how we’re structured only to then find out later on at new hire orientation what the clear answer was.”

When the program was launched last year, employee feedback was already strong at 84 percent saying they were “very satisfied” with the onboarding process. Since then, that number has risen to percentages in the mid 90s.

Hutchison is now seeing the customer experience intersect with the employee experience. Hutchison and National Grid want customers to have an exceptional experience, which means creating that experience first for employees with whom they’ll be working directly. “By focusing only on customer experience without investing in and paying equal attention to employees, you are never going to achieve your objectives,” he says.

“National Grid’s success is a testament to the company’s agility around strategic changes and shifts in employee needs, supported by flexible benefits and smart technology,” adds Richard Wolfe, CEO and cofounder of Empyrean Benefit Solutions. “By leveraging an adaptable and engaging benefits experience, National Grid is driving positive results for both their employees and customers.”

After all, the stakes in the war for talent are too high to jeopardize in such a competitive landscape. With this employee engagement strategy in place, the results have been dynamic. Not only can National Grid predict any challenges in the workforce, but Hutchison and his team are now attracting the next generation to the company.

“We have fathers, mothers, grandfathers, uncles, and aunts who work in the same company as their family,” Hutchison says. “Union colleagues in National Grid come to us all the time to ask, ‘How do I get my son/daughter/niece/nephew a job at National Grid?’”

Meeting Employees Where They Are

As Keith Hutchison explains, National Grid employs four generations in its workforce. As a result, Hutchison has emphasized targeting benefits in accordance with what’s most important for specific demographics.

For example, National Grid recently launched a student loan repayment program for employees that has been met with tremendous success.

“I don’t want to be following all the competition for talent; I want to be leading in areas as well,” Hutchison says. “We recognize that student debt is a significant burden on many of our employees.”

Within two weeks of launching, Hutchison says that roughly eight hundred National Grid employees, who had collective debt in excess of about $25 million, signed up for the program.

“You can imagine just how much of a strain that was being placed on many of our employees,” he says. “And that’s not just for people who are new hires—millennials and Generation Y that are coming into the workforce. For many, that’s parents who signed the loans over to themselves rather than have the loan in the name of their son or daughter who’s going to college.”

Additionally, National Grid is also launching a new Caregiver Program. This benefit will give employees access to high-quality child and elder care, along with programs and resources to support employees and their families.

Eligible employees will have access to back-up child and adult/elder care, educational advising for students of all ages, support for children who need extra help, and many other additional family support resources.

Photos: Webb Chappell

Mercer is honored to partner with National Grid in creating a diversified benefit offering to meet the needs of its employees. We congratulate Keith Hutchison and his team for cultivating a workforce that enables National Grid employees to Live Brighter and to focus on the moments that matter most.