Filling the Power Engineering Skills Gap

Who is responsible for paying to educate the next generation?

26 December 2012

The power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy and other recent storms have revealed just how vulnerable the U.S. power grid is. [Read our previous blogs about the outages caused by Sandy and an IEEE member’s thoughts on lessons learned.] Some blame a lack of automation and smart technologies as the reason for delays in restoring power. But to smarten up the grid, utility companies need power engineers—lots of them—and soon. That’s because during the next decade, about half of the estimated 7000 engineers in the field in the United States are expected to retire.

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 several ways to solve it. The Institute has written several articles on this topic.

One of the possible solutions is the IEEE Power & Energy Society’s Scholarship Plus Initiative is a multimillion-dollar three-year program that encourages EE undergrads to pursue careers in power engineering by awarding them scholarships and providing career experiences as undergraduates. In June, I, along with other invited guests from government, academia, and power utilities, attended a discussion about the workforce shortage and the scholarship program. I wrote about it in “Scholarship Program Off to a Strong Start,” which appeared in October. Students receive up to three years of funding—US $2000 the first year, $2000 the second year, and $3000 the third year. 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. 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. Now in its second year, the initiative distributed scholarships earlier this month to 228 students at 100 universities across the United States. That brings the total of scholars to around 400.

The scholarship program is made possible by donations to the IEEE Power & Energy Society Scholarship Fund of the IEEE Foundation. The S&C Foundation and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories have donated $1 million each. Other donors include the IEEE Boston Section’s Power & Energy Society Chapter, Doble Engineering, the Grainger Foundation, National Grid USA, and Westinghouse. The program has raised $4.1 million in cash and pledges from donors, nearing the halfway point to its $10 million fundraising goal. The money is to be distributed over the next five years.

But other organizations are funding programs as well. In November, the Portland General Electric Foundation awarded a $50 000 grant to Portland State University to help prepare engineering students for careers in the power industry. It set up a power engineering teaching laboratory in the school’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, according to an article in the university newspaper, Vanguard. The lab will be directed by associate professor Robert Bass, an IEEE member.

“Building a smarter energy grid will require highly trained engineers,” said Jim Piro, president and CEO of PGE in the article. “We strongly support educational institutions like PSU, which are developing educational pathways and hands-on learning for students to become power engineers.” A previous PGE Foundation grant created the PGE Foundation Renewable Energy Research Laboratory at the university. In 2011, the two opened Electric Avenue on the PSU campus, which was the country’s first street dedicated to showcasing electric transportation technology.

And the federal government is also providing money. At that June meeting I attended, IEEE Member Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy at the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability reported that the department used $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.

In September, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded a $15 million grant to a workforce development program run by community colleges in western Pennsylvania, according to an article in E2 Wire, Capitol Hill’s Energy and Environment blog. Known as ShaleNET, the program supplies workers for the region’s booming natural gas industry, and energy firms donate equipment and offer work opportunities. The program started in 2010 with a $4.9 million grant from the Labor Department. Jane Oates, the Department of Labor’s assistant secretary for employment and training administration, envisions this type of program becoming a public-private effort, with industry and trade groups “designing and funding program for jobs they need to fill.”

But whose role is it to fund programs to help educate the next generation of engineers for industries that are facing a workforce shortage? Should it be IEEE members and its societies, taxpayers, companies that will be experiencing the shortage, or a combination of all three?

Photo: Getty Images

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