From Scott Carlberg

Want a satisfying career? Want to also help the Carolinas? Think about energy. Really. While Carolina energy headlines have largely been about reactors or pipelines, here is a different look at our energy system: Its workers. Specifically, smart new entrants into the workforce who will keep the lights on for us all. Across the board, that is something we ought to be able to agree is important.

The power industry as a career choice is not sexy, though. Should it be? I think so.

Attracting a smart and vibrant workforce is essential for any business, city and state to be a success (read: efficiency, paychecks, economic mobility). In the energy industry, as in many industries these days, new entrants into the workforce are an issue. “Baby boomers are retiring, unemployment is low, skilled craft workers are in short supply, and human resources in the workforce are a growing issue for power industry management,” said an article in Power magazine. (Trends and Obstacles in the Power Industry Workforce)

Work in the power industry is changing fast. An article in CIO [Chief Information Officer] magazine says: “A Next Generation Grid Will Need Input and Participation From the Next Generation.” The author says it is time to vastly increase the new entrants into the energy workforce. “This generation will very likely create a grid that looks very different than the one that exists today.” He says his workforce is good at solving puzzles and wants to be “building something larger than yourself.”

Creating an advanced energy system is the goal. “Larger than yourself” is the operative phrase. As I told an audience of educators and parents, updating the grid will be like working with a national-level gamer challenge, and test the skills of smart people. A study by the Illinois Institute of Technology said, “The convergence of telecommunications systems, information technology, and electrical system operations will demand combined and blended skill sets for front‐line employees, technicians, operators, and engineers. The integration and blending of these skill sets will create new field and operations roles and responsibilities.”

There’s demand. One study “forecasts the need for 105,000 new workers in the smart grid and electric utility industry by 2030, but expects that only 25,000 existing industry personnel are interested in filling those positions. The remaining 80,000 employees in this supply-demand mismatch will need to be filled through recruiting and training.”

Our colleges and tech schools will have to turn out these workers, then energy companies will finish off the training – OTJ – On the Job.

Energy work is not just about skills, but values, too. The next generation workforce, called by some, “iGen,” is bringing its own job values to the workplace: “iGen wants stable jobs in enduring industries. This is a fantastic opportunity for managers at established companies, who can recruit a generation looking for steady work. Practical, career-focused, and cautious but with less experience with independence, iGen is willing to work hard for the managers who can understand them. Do so, and their potential is limitless.” (Meet iGen: The new generation of workers that is almost everything millennials aren’t)

Segments of the industry are building links to new entrants. In Rocky Mount, NC, a solar association is teaching teachers about its business. From the Rocky Mount Reflector: “Several area teachers were in the classroom this week, learning about solar energy and how to pass on that knowledge to students in the coming school year. ‘We are offering these free sessions to help educate teachers so that they can teach students about renewable energy and solar farms,’ said Mozine Lowe, executive director of the Center for Energy Education. ‘We hope that students will also see the benefits of pursuing careers in this new and growing industry.’” The school was chosen because it is near a proposed 900-acre solar farm. Enlightened self-interest. Smart.

The Savannah River Site in South Carolina is also doing school outreach, though aimed at career counselors. That is strategic, too. Says the Augusta Chronicle, “Career counselors from Bamberg, Barnwell and Allendale County Public Schools recently attended a special tour of the Savannah River Site. The tour was developed to help them answer student questions about careers at the large industrial complex of nuclear and non-nuclear facilities owned by the Department of Energy.”

What may be surprising to some readers is that nuclear energy, a major electric source in the Carolinas, may be a draw for our states. On the National Public Radio program, All Things Considered, June 15, this story ran, “As Nuclear Struggles, A New Generation Of Engineers Is Motivated By Climate Change.” These young professionals see one way to impact carbon and the world they inherit – through nuclear energy. An excerpt from the report: “The number of people graduating with nuclear engineering degrees has more than tripled since a low point in 2001, and many are passionate about their motivation. ‘I’m here because I think I can save the world with nuclear power,’ Leslie Dewan [one conference attendee] told the crowd.”

Our challenge in the Carolinas is to have an energy industry that is attractive to new entrants into the workforce. A place where the decision-makers act swiftly and with logic, where educational institutions are cranking out grads with the right knowledge and skills, and with a vibrant energy industry ready to grow and bring these grads on board.

As consumers and citizens of the Carolinas, I hope we can agree on the positives: A smart energy economy, with good people, who support our states and cities, and motivate other young energy professionals to stay here, or move here. There is a lot of talk about energy in the Carolinas, and we can do more for our energy system  – and our economy and communities – as we encourage our young talent to enter the energy workforce in the Carolinas.

Note:  Photos courtesy of Duke Energy online media.

Want to learn more? The Carolinas have terrific educational opportunities in the energy field. Here are a few:

Appalachian State University’s Energy Center does research and training.  Check its upcoming workshops here. Appalachian State also has some interesting energy activities in landfill gas, carbon accounting and energy efficiency.

At UNC Charlotte’s the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) is a research center that provides education and applied research opportunities to students with energy related interests.

North Carolina State University’s College of Engineering has varied engineering degrees offered that relate to energy.

The University of South Carolina’s Department of Engineering and Computing offers varied degrees that apply to energy.

Clemson University’s Department of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences has 12 areas of study, many that relate to energy, such as mechanical engineering, environmental engineering, civil engineering, and even automotive engineering.

Technical schools are a linchpin for energy success. Check South Carolina’s tech schools, and North Carolina’s tech schools.