Like any other utility engineer, I like to read T&D World during my lunch break to keep up with what’s going on with the rest of the industry. When I read Rick Bush’s “Universities and Utilities Unite” column in the January 2013 issue, it caught my attention for several reasons.

I can remember my favorite professor’s name to this day. I also remember how he influenced me in many ways. He was a retired GE engineer with a Ph.D. who only went back to teaching after more than 30 years in industry. He brought real-world applications and thinking to what had been, up to that point, all academic learning. I am not saying that what I gained from my other professors wasn’t useful, but it was just that this professor’s knowledge of how the “real world” did things forever changed my life. I remember learning about symmetrical components and power system faults. Though it was interesting to me, it was never explained to me that someday those topics might become a second language to me as a protection engineer.

Fast-forward and a decade later, I am an adjunct instructor at Gonzaga University, a role I had never envisioned myself in. After college, I was fortunate enough to begin my career in the power industry and to learn power system protection from some of the best people in the industry. I quickly learned that I was underprepared for being a protection/relay engineer, but I had found my passion. I am now trying to prepare my students for becoming protection engineers, or at least how to understand them.

Working at Avista Corp., protection engineers interact with many departments and individuals in the power industry who have no idea of what a protection engineer does. This surprises me, and I constantly have to explain the role of a protection engineer. So when I was given the chance to teach, I jumped at it.

My goals for teaching are to inspire the next generation of protection engineers and to help new engineers learn about this field. If it had not been for that first job, I may not have ever heard of protection engineering and the vast challenges and opportunities that it offers. Unfortunately, most college programs only briefly mention the field in power analysis classes and give no detail that might inspire the next generation, leading to a shortage of protection engineers in the power industry. Luckily, industry is now doing something about it through collaborative efforts like the initiative Bush mentioned between Tennessee Valley Authority and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and the one I am involved in between Avista and Gonzaga University. Nine Avista engineers teach various topics at Gonzaga, bringing both theory and real-world applications to the students. It is up to our industry to develop these collaborative educational opportunities if we are to effectively replace the aging workforce. We are constantly hearing about the aging infrastructure, but many utilities will place their power grid at risk if they don’t properly address the aging workforce, as well.

Utility engineers also bring another major benefit to universities through their contacts with other utilities and equipment manufacturers. We were able to work with Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories to have protective relays and associated equipment donated to Gonzaga. We have installed the relays in a rack, which we routinely use to display concepts and to simulate faults to further reinforce concepts for the students.

Gonzaga University is addressing the workforce shortage by developing an online certificate program in T&D engineering. Students also can continue their education and obtain a master of engineering in T&D engineering. Electrical engineer Marty Gulseth came to Avista after he obtained the certificate from this program. He was retraining for employment in the power industry after his former employer, Agilent Technologies, closed its facility in Spokane. Avista also has hired recent graduates from Gonzaga who are better prepared for the utility environment.

Dan Austin, a May 2013 Gonzaga graduate, had this to say: “As a student, having the opportunity to take a course taught by an experienced engineer currently working in the industry is priceless. Not only do students learn theory, but we also learn how to apply the theory to real-world problems using current technology. Learning from adjunct professors like Kevin Damron closed this gap, providing invaluable knowledge that enabled me to easily apply what I was learning in the classroom. This knowledge extended beyond the course material and has made me a well-rounded engineer ready to enter the workforce.”

As Bush stated, as universities and utilities “unite,” we can better prepare graduates for the expectations of industry and provide the students with invaluable insight into what their careers may become.  

Kevin Damron ( joined the  system protection division of Avista Corp. in 2010 after stints at Eta Engineering Consultants and  Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories.