Could attrition kill the smart grid?

IEEE PES offers help to engineering students

Phil Carson | Apr 08, 2011


The future of the smart grid gets argued in many ways, from distribution automation to advanced metering infrastructure, from demand response to consumer engagement.

Two trend lines could trump those arguments, rendering them moot.

The first trend line: over the next five years, as much as half of all power engineers will retire.

The second: in that same period, demand for qualified power engineers is projected to increase.

"This path is not sustainable," according to the IEEE Power and Energy Society, which is attempting to bridge the gap.

(Here's a great piece by my colleague Kate Rowland in the September/October 2010 issue of Intelligent Utility magazine.

Sure, this topic has been discussed in the media, but to the generalist surveying the landscape, the actual, pragmatic steps to address it have been scattershot. (Yet, of course, efforts have been ongoing, see the IEEE PES report, "Preparing the U.S. Foundation for Future Electric Energy Systems: A Strong Power and Energy Engineering Workforce.")

If you are reading this column, one positive step you could take would be to bring the following information and Web links to the attention of any talented high school graduates and college freshmen this spring who are aiming to attend college in the fall and who might have an interest and aptitude for engineering studies. 

Enter: the IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Initiative. The process of grid modernization with digital technologies should actually be a draw to an industry that has seemingly lacked pizzazz. Now that electric grid modernization involves cutting edge technology as well as its traditional role in economic development and national security, the iron is hot.

IEEE PES's solution is to offer financial assistance, hands-on career experience and connections with potential employers. That's one track (more in a moment). The other track is to provide the rationale and some seed money to go out and attract additional funds to propel the Scholarship Plus Initiative to meet the nation's needs into the future.

But don't take it from me, I chatted recently with Wanda Reder, known to many of you as the immediate past president of the IEEE PES and a vice president in the power systems services division at S&C Electric Co., Inc. Reder  has a track record of interest in the issue and a predilection for solving challenges.

"I wanted to build confidence and excitement in this effort ," Reder told me. "And you can build interest if you can point to something real."

To jump-start the process the IEEE PES created a $1 million seed fund, some of which has enabled immediate scholarships to be awarded, while the balance will serve as the basis for outreach to philanthropic organizations and businesses to raise $10 million for the mission.

The application process is open until June 30. Monies are awarded in August for the 2011-2012 academic year.

"I see increased workload (for power engineers) and a need for specialized skill sets," Reder told me. "It's not hard to connect the dots. The 'old work' needs to get done, yet at the same time, we're adding sensors and communications to the grid, creating 'new work.'

"We think if we can focus on the sophomore and junior undergraduate years, we can develop a pipeline. Time is of the essence," she said.

Financial scholarships and career-oriented internships are available. Click on the links above to familiarize yourself with the IEEE PES program and bring it to the attention of someone who might take advantage of it.

Then we can mosey up to the bar and argue over what "smart grid" really means.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily




Related Topics


Attrition -- Smart Grid

While I agree that the workforce is aging, I disagree that it will kill the smart grid.   With the economy in the sad state it is in, many fewer are going to retire in the next five years than planned and will likely keep their jobs way longer than previously thought.  With retirement plans and 401k's in the toilet, we have to work longer, a lot longer than planned.  This is especially true now, since prices of everything are increasing all around us, so even if we thought we had enough money put away to retire, we don't because inflation is alreay killing the nest egg.  Bottom line: we will all stay in the work place longer and thus we will be there to see smart grid become a reality.

Couldn't agree more



Just finished reading your article, and I could not agree more.


Recruiting energy professionals since the mid-90's I have been chiming the bell of talent crisis for 10 years or more. It started while staffing up energy deregulation with the California Power Exchange, Cal-ISO, ERCOT, and others. These projects were great microcosms of the coming crisis.


As each deregulated firm began to build up, they all wanted candidates with energy experience. In short order, it became apparent, that this would not be happening, and thinking outside the box, benefited those that took action an tried new things.


Your comments take the talent shortage to a newer level that should be considered, but often is not. The opportunity cost, of not acting now, and the repercussions that will happen, if not acted upon.


Only now, are we starting to see the actual effects of the crisis. I cannot tell you how many meetings I have had with senior hiring teams commenting that they cannot find good candidates. Or, compensation is gong up and they cannot understand why, especially in this economy.


There are things that can be done, but similar to energy deregulation, it may take a bit longer for most companies to really, really 'get' it. The front-runner companies will get it and work with it. The other 80% will not, and will pay the price.


In one sense, my experiences through the bubble, is a good, smaller example of what is coming. And perhaps, some ideas on what can be done as potential solutions.


Phil, I have been an avid reader. You have written a story that is near and dear to me, glad to see it.



Alan Fluhrer
Fluhrer & Bridges
Consultants in Executive Search

Behind the Eight Ball Already.

This is one of many major issue facing all IOU, COOP, and Municipal utilities across the country.  There are no universities programs, that I'm aware of, to train distribution engineers.  Most university that do have power engineering programs focus on generation, transmission and substation disciplines but not the distribution systems which run up and down all the streets and roads across the US.  Even with an engineering degree, it takes about 5 to 7 years of On-The-Job-Training (OJT) to get that engineer properly trained.  They start out with simple residential services and move up to more complicated commercial service designs.  It can take up to 6 months to over a year just to design and build the systems to serve one new Wal-Mart store.  Only the more senior distribution engineers handle the very complicated distribution line design and redesigns.  I've seen a single distribution engineers involved with 30 to 50 projects at any given time.  All major community improvement projects you see usually involve a distribution engineer to design and or relocate distribution systems. 

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The most successful people at performing this work must have electrical skills, mechanical skills, a lawyer mentality, and people negotiation skills.  These are pretty hard skills to find in typical engineering personalities.  Thus, it makes finding the right people to fill these positions even harder. 


This issue has been around for a while and many utilities are already behind the eight ball in holding and finding this workforce talent. 


Richard G. Pate

Pate & Associates, Principal


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