Look at the numbers

POWER INDUSTRY DEMOGRAPHICS ARE NOT USUALLY A TOPIC OF INTEREST FOR AN ENGINEER. My curiosity about this subject started when I worked at a utility that faced a merger-driven downsizing accompanied by a hiring freeze. Soon the “graying” of my coworkers became noticeable, both at work and at industry meetings, and I began to wonder how these demographics might impact the electric infrastructure and, ultimately, the industry's economic future.

At least 20%, and at some companies up to 40%, of power industry employees in North America will be eligible to retire in the next five years. The occupations that will experience the most retirements are also the most difficult to replace. Our industry is coming to the realization that recruiting and retaining the best people is top priority. Unfortunately, the number of undergraduate engineering students in the United States continues to decline, and fewer graduating engineers have power backgrounds. Although hiring is underway across our industry, there are simply not enough qualified replacements. Now is the time to plan for our future workforce needs — a job that requires the industry to work together to attract, develop and retain this vital talent.

NOW IS THE TIME FOR ACTION

To attract talent, we need to promote the image of the power industry. Let's start at the middle and high school levels where employers arrange speaker opportunities for engineers to eagerly share their experiences in the power field. Adolescent awareness can be heightened by using National Engineers Week to showcase power engineering by sponsoring science fairs and technical “knowledge bowl” competitions, and by recognizing student achievement through monetary awards, summer jobs and scholarships. “Take Your Kids to Work Day” is also an opportunity to showcase the industry and generate interest by providing tours and leading science projects. Employers can also participate in high school career days, job shadowing, mentoring and mock interview sessions. To enhance student interest in power, employers can participate directly in one-on-one student mentorship, using, for example, www.mentornet.net, which pairs students with mentors for e-mail-based relationships.

With engineering enrollment declining, we are fiercely competing with other industries for talent, and power must become more visible to attract scarce engineering talent. Industry employers can present in engineering classrooms and at IEEE Power Engineering Society (PES) chapter meetings to highlight emerging technologies, industry changes and the impact of a reliable system on society.

Connecting with students is especially important in the first two collegiate years, when majors are determined and co-op/internship applications are initiated. For a predictable supply of talent, employers must hire year after year to establish an ongoing campus presence. To encourage engineers to select power, employers can work with faculty to convey hiring needs, develop research initiatives, influence curricula, sponsor internships and offer scholarships. Our industry should also follow the lead of high-tech companies by donating equipment and making grants for research and laboratories.

Employers also need to strengthen relations with college educators. Employers should consider underwriting classes and creating research and consulting opportunities for professors. Employers can also become involved as industry advisors for universities. Because of industry restructuring, the power-engineering curriculum must both impart solid engineering skills and address emerging needs in such areas as environment and public policy, power systems, power electronics and electric machines, renewable energy systems, basic maintenance and distributive control systems.

LET'S RETAIN WHAT WE HAVE

Demographic experts agree that Generation Xers typically are interested in upward mobility, are computer savvy and expect training in a variety of job assignments. Training and development efforts and backgrounds of newer employees will often need to include flexible schedules and rotational assignments.

Employers can facilitate employee development by encouraging participation in industry meetings to accelerate learning and facilitate networking. IEEE PES is committed to being a resource for technical training and offers both traditional and online tutorials.

Many industries face challenges related to a maturing workforce. The IEEE PES is committed to working with employers and academia alike, so that power will be an industry of choice and we can attract and retain the talent that's so crucial to our success. In short, the industry's future depends on our ability to anticipate what lies ahead and respond effectively to these challenges.

Wanda Reder is president-elect of IEEE PES and vice president of S&C's Power Systems Service division. WReder@sandc.com

This article was inspired by a panel session at the IEEE PES General Meeting in 2006. Participants included Clark Gellings, EPRI; Chris Root, National Grid; Wanda Reder, S&C Electric Co.; Jack Casazza, American Education Institute; and George Gross, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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