Grid edge
U.S. market

Transmission has a labor problem

For utility darling TS Conductor, finding the workers it needs means looking beyond the energy sector — and in Southern California, that means aerospace.

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People working on transmission lines

Photo credit: Liu Zhongjun / China News Service / VCG via Getty Images

People working on transmission lines

Photo credit: Liu Zhongjun / China News Service / VCG via Getty Images

TS Conductor says it has a solution to the staggering interconnection challenge facing the energy transition: conductors that can triple the capacity of the existing grid.

And in recent years the company has had a string of successes, from opening a California manufacturing plant to expanding its customer base. But as it looks to expand further to meet the voracious utility appetite for its product, TS Conductor is running into a challenge that technology alone can’t solve: a talent shortage.

  • The top line: The availability of a manufacturing and installation workforce is a crucial prerequisite of the commercialization of technologies that could help circumvent the bottlenecks posed by the immense global need for additional transmission capacity. But the industry is struggling to find workers that have the right experience, prompting it to look beyond the energy sector. 
  • The impact: Companies like TS Conductor — whose clients include TVA, NextEra Energy, and APS — are increasingly feeling the pressure to churn out transmission-enhancing products. But the question of where to find talent looms, especially as TS prepares to expand its U.S. footprint. In Southern California, the company has recently relied on labor from the aerospace industry, but exactly where it will be able to hire to fill a planned plant on the East Coast is top of mind.
  • The current take: “The need for grid conductors is massive,” said TS Conductor founder and CEO Jason Huang, adding that capacity needs to be built within the next 15 to 18 months. “We’re being pressed by our customers, especially our investor-owned utility customers, to have massive manufacturing capacity to support their needs.”
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TS Conductor was founded in 2018, and has grown in step with utility demand for solutions to the transmission problem. Last year, just five years in, the company turned a profit.

Now, TS is both expanding its California manufacturing footprint, and opening a new, larger facility on the East Coast. (For the latter plant, the company is still evaluating locations, and plans to make a final decision this spring.)

“We need to diversify, because our customers are everywhere in the U.S.,” Huang said. But the decision to expand is also about managing risk, whether that’s in the form of disruptive California earthquakes, or the state’s “very tight” labor market, he added.

Bringing in new talent is a huge element of expansion efforts, Huang said, and in many ways it’s more challenging than getting new equipment up and running. The company needs to add about 40% more employees for its expanded operations in California, and then hire 500 new employees for the East Coast factory.

A confluence of increasing labor costs, huge demand for engineers — TS needs experts in materials science, chemical engineering, and electrical engineering, among others — and low unemployment rates have intensified the challenge. 

The promise of aerospace

In Southern California, the company is taking advantage of the region’s aerospace industry, both for leadership and for factory workers. In fact, the presence of that sector’s talent is partly what’s keeping TS operations there.

TS’s product features a carbon fiber composite core, encapsulated in a layer of aluminum. The company says its conductors solve inherent limitations of more traditional conductors, like thermal sag, and that they’re cheaper than the standard technology. And both carbon fiber composite and aluminum are materials that are widely used in aerospace.

“People who have composite manufacturing experience will be a very natural fit to what we need,” Huang said. “We love aerospace veterans or aerospace-trained employees. They can come in, whether in product development, quality control, manufacturing or assembly, and we could absorb them quickly.”

That being said, pulling labor from other industries can be challenging. For one thing, Huang said, a lot of top talent sees aerospace as exciting and futuristic, and the power grid as part of a slow, non-evolving industry. Furthermore, aerospace companies tend to pay extremely well; with wages already on the rise in California, Huang said TS is struggling to keep up. Hiring from aerospace requires the company to “step up” on salaries, he added.

‘Underestimating the need for labor’ 

The talent shortage is a barrier to solving transmission issues more broadly. 

Direct competitors of TS are facing the same hiring issues, Huang said, and it’s preventing them from decreasing their lead times, which currently range from 50 to 70 weeks. Drawing from adjacent sectors, like utilities, doesn’t solve the problem, he added, because those sectors are struggling too.

“We are seriously, as a society, underestimating the need for labor,” Huang said. “We need to double or triple the [size of the] grid in the next 20 or 30 years. How are you going to execute all these grid updates? It takes people!”

And for a nascent technology, it’s not just about bringing qualified people on board, it’s also about getting them up to speed as quickly as possible — especially given the extremely tight timelines TS is working under. The company is having to balance the comparative ease of hiring less qualified candidates with the additional time it takes to get them up to the requisite productivity levels, he added.

When deployed at scale, newer technologies like the ones TS is developing can go a long way toward getting more out of existing transmission infrastructure, Huang said. But that newness is also an added challenge: the company’s manufacturing process is essentially unique.

“Even if you have money, even if you have the product, you still need people to execute,” he added. “I think that could be a major bottleneck in the energy transition.”

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