IF YOU TAKE A CLOSE LOOK AT THE DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILE of employees at Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.), the portrait is not unlike many utilities around the country — plenty of experienced engineers in their 50s and 60s, a small group of 40 somethings, an even smaller band of late 20- and 30-year-olds and a handful of recent grads, many of whom were not specifically educated as “power” engineers. This reality makes Terry Henry's position as leader of strategy and electric services at OG&E even more challenging. He knows what these numbers will mean for his workforce sooner than later.

That's why he's already formulated a contingency plan to develop replacements for the large group of OG&E employees facing retirement in the next decade or so. “Getting new employees is only one of the challenges,” Henry says. “Retaining and planning future work with this mobile generation of young engineers is difficult without really knowing who is going to be here 5, 10 or 20 years down the road.”

To help deal with these unknowns, OG&E recently changed its recruitment and retention approach by developing a program that changes the dynamic of traditional entry-level engineering positions in order to more effectively attract and retain young talent. “We've taken some of the simplistic work out of the traditional entry-level jobs, such as going out into the field and driving stakes into the ground and doing job sketches and estimates,” Henry says.

Instead, OG&E has developed a plan where engineers come in and spend the first year learning the fundamentals of distribution. Next comes a year working in strategic planning and business development. After a taste of the management track, they rotate into technical design jobs in transmission, control and system protection.

Similar to OG&E, the average employee is 48 years old at National Grid (Westborough, Massachusetts, U.S.), one of the world's largest utilities with electricity transmission systems in the northeastern United States that distributes electricity to approximately 3.3 million customers. Characterizing the looming engineering shortage as a “simmering crisis,” Chris Root, senior vice president of T&D technical services at National Grid, knows his company must act now to combat the pending employment void that seems to be inevitable.

According to Root, falling employment projections are not the industry's only problem. “Because the nation's transmission systems were mostly built in the l960s, there's no question that more work is on the way,” he says. “At some point, somebody is eventually going to have to do something about that, which will cause a pent-up demand for potential work that will be necessary going forward. So, not only are we going to have to hire people to replace the people that are on the payroll today, but we're going to need more of the existing population.”

A LOOK INSIDE THE ENGINEERING SHORTAGE

According to the most recent data from Engineering Trends (Houghton, Michigan, U.S.), a firm specializing in the study and analysis of engineering education, undergraduate first-year enrollments for engineers has declined 2.5% since fall 2002, and total full-time enrollments declined 0.4% in fall 2004. Since fall 2001, part-time undergraduate enrollments have declined 16.4%. Richard Heckel, founder and technical director of Engineering Trends, expects bachelor's degree declines to begin in the next few years.

According to Sakis Melioupoulis, a professor at the School of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta Georgia, U.S.), not only is the number of students who are going into power decreasing, but so is the number of universities with power programs. “There has definitely been a downward trend that hit bottom about three or four years ago,” he says. “Since then, we've seen a slight increase but not to previous levels.”

What's causing the drop in engineering enrollment? Most industry veterans agree the problem lies within. “I think we have a PR issue, in that people do not think the utility industry has great significant technical challenges,” Root says. “College graduates look at us and see poles and wires, and don't realize there are things like automation, computer control and sophisticated asset management systems out there.”

RECRUITING TODAY'S TALENT

After losing 14 engineers in a little more than one year in the late 1990s to the telecommunications boom, Root says National Grid got a big wake-up call. “The electrical engineers we lost were younger and more mobile,” he says.

In many cases, these companies hire for the short term, so they may pay big money and dangle incentives such as stock options to attract people. “Losing that many engineers in such a short period of time made us really think about how we attract and keep engineers,” Root admits.

As a result, National Grid beefed up its collegiate recruiting program, visiting 18 schools per year and targeting the best students as well as diversity candidates. But, the company has not stopped there. It plants the recruitment seed much younger. “Research has told us that to get people interested in science you really have to start in about third or fourth grade,” Root maintains.

National Grid is very active in educating school children of this age, providing schools with videotapes, materials and documents for elementary schools. “When you first introduce physical science, you really want to get kids excited because by the time they get into junior high, if they're already turned off by science, there is less of a chance to get them to take advanced science courses such as physics in high school,” Root says. “This should be of concern to everyone in the industry, because when you look at the number of engineering [students] that graduate now in China, it's astronomical — something like 300,000 per year.”

At OG&E, recruitment efforts were somewhat dormant for a span of almost 20 years. Since it resumed recruiting more aggressively, the company's had great luck attracting top-notch graduates. Not only has the utility doubled the number of campuses it visits from three to six per year, but it's also changed the makeup of its recruiting team, now including an HR representative, an experienced engineer and a younger engineer.

Zac Hager is one of OG&E's hip new hires that goes on recruiting trips in hopes of speaking potential college kids' language. As a roving engineer, he's been with the company for three years and has already participated in distribution design, regulatory filings, reliability studies and most recently asset management.

GROOMING GENERATION Y

Hager is what you might call a typical Generation Y'er. He is ambitious, outspoken and eager to learn. Currently working on an engineering management path, similar to an engineering MBA degree, Hager is preparing to take the PE exam in a year while pursuing a master of science in engineering and technology management from Oklahoma State University. Characterizing himself as “having no fear,” Hager admits there are some truths to the stereotypes his elder engineers may spread about his generation but also feels the group is often incorrectly labeled.

“The vice president of my business unit joked one day that I wasn't old enough to realize that I should have fear,” Hager says. “I have also been called ambitious and eager because I take advantage of every challenge that is thrown at me. Everyone still believes that my generation is a transient job-hopping bunch, but I still believe that the power industry will continue to have people retiring with 30 and 40 years of experience with the same company by the time I retire.”

Having grown up with computers, electronics and multimedia galore, Hager maintains that most of the differences between the retiring workforce and the new entrants stem from technology. Recently working on the capital budget, with direction from his boss, Hager's also a computer whiz. “We're using this optimization technique, and no one knew the ins and outs of the new software,” Hager explains. “I get into it, start using it and see things I don't like about it. So I'm going in and changing things from the back end, like how you enter information into the program. This seems foreign to everybody else, but this is what we did in school.”

Working in the utility business for three decades, OG&E's Henry says the generational differences do exist, but maintains that the industry must embrace change in order to move forward. This genre's trademark seems to be assertiveness, not arrogance. “Today's graduates are definitely more informed and more savvy, as they have a lot more information at their fingertips,” Henry says. “In this environment, it's not uncommon for undergraduate engineers today to have already sampled two or three job assignments before they even get to graduation.”

Raciel Leiva, one of Melioupoulis' undergraduate students, is a good case in point. As a senior this year, he's already worked in a research capacity on campus as well as completed a hands-on internship. “The people at [this utility] have an idea of what the power system has been for the last 30 years, but they're not really familiar with the new technology coming out in the market,” Leiva says. “So it was a great opportunity for me to interact with these engineers and show them what the new technology is and where we want the power systems to be 20 years from now.”

Leiva says the reason he's pursuing a career in electric power is because he wants to own his own company someday. “I wouldn't be afraid to sit down with the supervisor of a substation designer and say, ‘this is wrong,’” he says. “Most of my friends would do the same thing. [Experienced engineers] have to accept the fact that this is new technology and listen to us. Understandably, it's really hard for the old engineers to switch to a new type of technology after 30 years of doing things a certain way.”

Although everyone wants to make the highest salary possible, most recent grads like Leiva agree their decision to take a first job is about more than money. It's all about the package — salary, benefits, opportunity and location. Hager says he's also noticed a growing trend toward family concerns. “I, like others my age, don't want to live in the workaholic America,” he says. “I want to go to work and put in a hard, honest 8- to 9-hour day, and then I want to go home and be left alone. Many of us are more than willing to put in longer hours if it is really needed, but it can't be a consistent trend.

“Quality of work diminishes by the time you have worked 10 hours, and attitudes and retention worsen with each continuous day of extended work hours,” Hager continues. “Don't bother calling me on Sunday morning because I'll be at church. When I'm on vacation, I won't be checking e-mail. Everyone wants to know what happened to values in today's society, but the truth is they start in the home. Utilities should encourage community involvement and allow workers to spend time with their families. I will be there for my kids — when I have them — like my folks were there for me.”

TRAINING AND RETAINING TODAY'S TALENT

Given the shortage of technical talent, it seems there is no easy cure for the utility industry to solve the looming engineering crisis. However, many have opted to develop creative, customized solutions.

The United Kingdom has developed one such innovative approach. Andrew Cross, director of development and training at EA Technology, is part of the team behind an initiative called the Power Academy (www.iee.org/poweracademy) to meet engineering staffing needs for the industry's future. Similar to a scholarship in the United States, this program is available through four universities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Ten utilities and six manufacturers/consultancy firms agree to sponsor one or more students who are studying power engineering by paying for their education and guaranteeing them summer employment as an intern. Last year, 45 students joined the program, but Cross expects the program to reach more than 90 in 2006. He also commented that the Academy universities have already seen increases in the number and quality of students applying for these electrical engineering courses.

EA Technology's sponsored students are expected to come onboard as full-time employees after graduation.

Root follows a similar approach at National Grid. His company's philosophy is if you can't find ‘em, make ‘em. “We found that we had a very difficult time attracting anyone higher than a bachelor-level degree, and we had a number of jobs that needed more sophistication,” he says. “We couldn't find master's degreed people at all, so we partnered with Worcester Polytechnic Institute and started offering a certificate in power system management.”

National Grid selects 10 qualified candidates from a pool of applicants and sends them back to school for one year to take graduate-level courses to ensure specialized training among its workforce. “It was a difficult year for them because it was a sacrifice,” Root says. “The company paid 100% of their costs, gave them every third Friday off to go to school, but they had to agree to give up every third Saturday to attend classes as well. We felt like if we gave up Friday, they could give up Saturday.”

So far, the utility has put 53 people through the program. “By doing this, we created a tremendous increase in the amount of technical people in the company than we previously had,” Root notes. “Our retention rate of those people has also been extremely good. We've only lost two of them. Although it cost about $10,000 per employee, it's been extremely successful.”

Now considering ideas outside of the traditional hiring paradigm, such as signing bonuses and hiring people for contract terms rather than full-time employees, OG&E's Henry realized that the current employment crisis is mostly self-imposed. Despite the fact that utilities are competing with so many other industries, including communications, computers, manufacturing and the military, Henry remains optimistic about the future leadership of the industry. “In my mind, the utility industry is invisible to the public, but it's changing — with a lot of new ideas, new technology and specialization,” Henry says. “We just need to tell our story.”


Ellen Parson is a freelance writer and editor based in Lee's Summit, Missouri, U.S. becaparson@comcast.net.