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The Pupil Becomes the Master

And you shall teach them ordinances and laws, and shall show them the way in which they must walk and the work that they must do. Exodus 18:20 Our industry

And you shall teach them ordinances and laws, and shall show them the way in which they must walk and the work that they must do. — Exodus 18:20

Our industry is marked by more than a century of tradition, much of it hard-won, earned by the sweat, tears and even blood of those who came before us. It should come as no surprise then that we are also often slow to change and initially resistant to new and different ideas.

Increasingly, those of us with decades of service are confronted with the ideas of a new generation of young people who are seemingly taking us by storm. And, just as so many of us were the “young rebels” some 35 years ago when the industry went through a boom not unlike today, this generation will take over. Their nimble minds and technology-driven ideas will be served, and they will lead our industry with distinction and achievement that we cannot even imagine.

But the choice of how good this new generation will be is not entirely theirs, it is just as much ours. They should be our greatest legacy.

So, what is it we can and should do to make this “rookie crop” better than we are? Remember, the prize is that they become not just what we are, but better. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.”

Their education, diversity, experiences and fresh viewpoints will be melded with our real-world lessons and our love for the business. Our passion and knowledge can be embedded in “new equipment” with all the latest improvements and years of service still ahead. But they can't benefit from all we know and have done unless and until we commit to unselfishly sharing it — and they to listening.

What kind of role model, mentor, coach, teacher and encourager are you? How do you treat the people who work for and with you every day? I'm not talking simply about your bosses, I'm talking about people of every job title who contribute to your success, including the person who empties your trash or works the security desk at your building. How you treat each and every person will be observed and modeled by the young people who work for you. If you address them by name, recognize their contributions and treat them with respect, then that's how the next generation will learn to behave. If you're too busy or full of yourself to be kind, you'll help build that kind of legacy, too.

I've read the story of Charles Plumb, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who became a fighter pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was shot down. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands. He was captured and spent six years in a communist prison. He survived and now lectures about lessons learned from that experience.

One day, Plumb was sitting in a restaurant when a man approached him and said, “You're Captain Plumb. You flew jet fighters in Vietnam. You were on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down. You parachuted into enemy hands and spent six years as a prisoner of war.”

“How in the world did you know all that?” asked Plumb.

The man replied, “Because I packed your parachute.”

Plumb couldn't sleep that night, thinking about that man. “I wondered how many times I might have passed him on the Kitty Hawk. I wondered how many times I might have seen him and not even said, ‘Good morning,’ ‘How are you?’ or anything, because, you see, I was a fighter pilot, and he was just a sailor.” Don't forget the people who pack your chute every day.

As successful professionals, you have the ability to support the young people as they develop the same sort of professional network that enabled you to accomplish so much more than you could have on your own. Send your young team to industry conferences and encourage them to join professional associations, user groups and formal networks. The payback will be tremendous for your companies and our industry.

Finally, you have to trust them enough to let them make mistakes and to have successes. Of course, we won't risk safety or our customers' reliability just to prove a point. And, to repeat a theme I use every time I talk to young engineers, we must teach them to “design the safety in” — and convince them that the greatest hero is the engineer who designs a system that cannot hurt our field folks or our customers, even when they make a mistake.

When it comes to these things, we don't take chances and we shouldn't. But many times, I have found that the new way of doing it really is better — safer, faster, cheaper, more reliable — even if I hate to admit it.

The greatest challenge for all of us is to know the difference between what has to be preserved and what needs to change. Please give your young people the opportunity to dream and to try new things — and to soar. They deserve it, just as we did all those years ago.

James A. Kelly ( is the retired senior vice president of T&D for Southern California Edison Co. He now works with youth and teachers to promote STEM education in the United States.

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