Scholarship Program Off to Strong Start

Initiative aims at increasing the number of power engineers

5 October 2012

More than 400 budding U.S. power engineers are moving along the college pipeline thanks to the IEEE Power & Energy Society’s Scholarship Plus Initiative. The multimillion-dollar three-year program encourages EE undergrads to pursue careers in power engineering by awarding them scholarships and providing career experiences as undergraduates. The initiative is designed to head off the dire shortage of power and energy expertise anticipated during the next decade, when about half of the estimated 7000 engineers in the field in the Unites States, are expected to retire.

The startling number of retirees was revealed in a 2009 survey by the Center for Energy Workforce Development, a nonprofit consortium of U.S. electric, natural gas, and nuclear utilities and their associations. The CEWD was formed in 2006 to address the already anticipated shortage. The report was one of the key factors that led to the Scholarship Plus Initiative.

The first year of the program, 93 students from 51 universities in the United States received US $186 000 in scholarship money. For the 2012–2013 academic year, nearly 300 students from more than 100 universities were awarded approximately $600 000 in scholarships.

“I think this is a phenomenal start to addressing the crucial workforce shortage, and we’ve only just begun,” says IEEE Fellow Wanda Reder, cochair of the initiative’s National Campaign Steering Committee and vice president of Power Systems Services at S&C Electric, a company in Chicago that specializes in developing smart-grid systems making use of renewable energy.

From left: Panelists Robert Thomas, Christopher Root, Patricia Hoffman, and Wanda Reder (at podium) at the "Building the Technical Workforce for Our Energy Future" meeting held in June, in New York City. Photo: IEEE Development Office

To be eligible for the scholarship, applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents and full-time students at a U.S. university or college offering undergraduate courses in power engineering. They receive $7000 in financial aid over three years: $2000 the first year, $2000 the second year, and $3000 the third year. The money is paid directly to the student, rather than to the school. In return, the student must take at least three power engineering courses totaling nine or more credits each semester. The program also provides career experience through internships such as those posted on PES-Careers, a database that helps match students with companies that have job openings.

“When I applied, I had never taken a power class before,” says Nick Coleman of Drexel University, in Philadelphia, who had planned to become an electrical engineer. “The scholarship required me to take a few power classes, and I ended up taking eight. Now I’m completely dedicated to a power career. It is such a diverse area.” Scheduled to graduate next June, Coleman worked at Drexel during his last summer break as a research assistant on optimizing LED fixtures for new design concepts.

To date, companies, foundations, and individuals have contributed more than $4 million, almost half of the initiative’s $10 million funding goal. The money is to be distributed over the next five years. Both the S&C Foundation and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories have donated $1 million. Other notable donors include the Grainger Foundation, Doble Engineering, National Grid USA, and Westinghouse.

Reder, the 2008–2009 president of the IEEE Power & Energy Society, established the Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaboration, a U.S. group of power engineers, university administrators, industry executives, and government officials who have been working on solving the workforce shortage since 2007. It published an action plan in 2009 that outlined the challenges facing the industry as well as potential solutions, including the scholarship program.

The PES has been at the forefront of several efforts, not least of which is to raise awareness of the problem. It organized a discussion in June at the Union League Club in New York City that focused on the importance of developing the technical workforce within the industry, as well as getting the word out about the scholarship. A panel discussion at the Union League meeting, “Building the Technical Workforce for Our Energy Future,” is available on IEEE.tv.

Invited guests included representatives from government, academia, and power utilities as well as Coleman and another recent scholarship recipient. Featured speakers included Reder; IEEE Senior Member Christopher Root, senior vice president of network strategy at National Grid USA; IEEE Life Fellow Robert Thomas, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.; and IEEE Member Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy at the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

MULTIPRONGED EFFORT
National Grid, of Waltham, Mass., is one power company that hopes to turn the heads of incoming engineering students. So far it has given $10 000 to the PES scholarship initiative because “there are a lot of smart kids in school who may not be thinking about a career in power,” Root says. “Putting money in front of them might mean the difference between someone being a leader in our industry or a leader in another industry.”

However, Root’s company doesn’t feel it can afford to sit back and wait for the new crop of power engineers to ripen. Almost a quarter of its 500 engineers will be eligible to retire in five years, and almost half of the 500 have 10 years or less of experience in the industry.

“We have experienced people who do a lot of great stuff, but we also have a lot of inexperienced people who are going to see a big handoff” of work, he says. Accordingly, National Grid has a development program of its own. Electrical engineers it hires now who are new to power engineering are required to take courses in subjects such as power systems engineering, project and risk management, and power distribution systems. Those with 10 to 20 years of experience are asked, if they haven’t already done so, to get involved with professional associations such as IEEE so they can learn from other experts in the field.

“The learning part of your career is very important,” Root says. “It sets you up to continue lifelong learning.”

The U.S. Energy Dept.’s Hoffman helped drive the department’s decision to use $100 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the economic stimulus plan enacted in 2009—to retarget programs toward smart-grid education. The department granted 54 awards to rebuild various university power and energy programs and fund research projects.

“We really need to help students become more diverse in their capabilities by giving them computational, mathematical, and power engineering experience,” Hoffman says. “We are going to need those capabilities in operating and managing the smart-grid system in the future.”

She advocates inviting students to tour power company facilities for a view of what she calls the “WOW! stuff.”

“I recently asked some college students what got them excited about this industry,” she says, “and they said seeing their school’s outage management systems being built by the local utility and realizing how it would help the community map out a severe storm’s impact.

“Whether it’s big or small steps, I think every one of us can make a difference” in getting students excited about the field, says Hoffman.

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