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GEARED Network Makes Strong Showing at DistribuTECH 2017

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“This is a great opportunity for you and your companies to network with potential future employees and maybe provide some guidance to these [GEARED] students.”

Teresa Hansen gives welcoming address to opening plenary at DistribuTECH 2017

With those words, Teresa Hansen, Powergrid International Editor-in-Chief and DistribuTECH 2017 Program Chair welcomed a packed opening plenary at DistribuTECH 2017. With more than 515 exhibiting companies, the likelihood that students and industry would connect was inevitable.

For the second year, GEARED (Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment) faculty and students made a strong showing at DistribuTECH 2017. Three opportunities enabled utilities and industry to engage with academia and collaborate on ways to update skills of incumbent workers while developing relevant curriculum to build a robust power systems workforce for today’s students.

Crowds gather for the GEARED student poster session at DistribuTECH 2017

For the entire conference, more than 50 students displayed their research on power systems, smart grid and distributed technology topics in a poster session. That’s three times as many posters displayed at DistribuTECH 2017 than in 2016. [list of poster titles]

“Conferences like DistribuTECH put students smack-dab in the company of industry—a LOT of industry—to make the case for their research and potential employment,” said Joe Sarubbi, IREC’s project manager for GEARED. IREC is the national network administrator for GEARED.

Shilpa Marti, UTSA, shares her research with a conference attendee

Teresa Hansen’s words echoed with Shilpa Marti, graduate research assistant in electrical engineering at the University of Texas/San Antonio (UTSA)

“On the first day, when only a few people stopped to ask me about my research, I knew I needed to do something. I went to the exhibit hall and looked for companies that were relevant to my research. It was great! I found two companies that are very interested in my work. It’s critical to know what’s in the market now and what are the gaps to bridge. As it turned out, the timing is good for me to make a change in my research to help bridge some of those gaps.”

That’s exactly what GEARED is designed to do: train future power systems engineers to meet industry’s needs to build and operate a modernized grid that accommodates significantly more distributed energy generation.

“This was the best poster session ever,” said Matt Backes, electrical engineering graduate student at the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign. “Industry interaction was incredible. I ended up with 10 business cards!”

Mega session on educating, hiring & retaining utility workers. L to R: Anil Pahwa, Scott Bordenkircher, Takahiro Isshiki, Kimberly Howard, Sue Kidd, Stephen Collins

In addition to the poster display, GEARED helped organize a mega panel session on initiatives utilities are using to develop that competent 21st century workforce and address hiring challenges for power engineers. Today’s workplace is radically different from yesterday. Lifetime employees are history. Millennials have very different job priorities. Thirty-eight percent of electric and gas utility sector workers may retire in the next decade, according to a 2013 Center for Energy Workforce Development survey. “There’s a silver tsunami coming,” said Scott Bordenkircher, director technology, innovation and integration at Arizona Public Service. [Mega Session Abstract]

Panelists enthusiastically agreed that the rapidly changing power engineering workforce is the ideal opportunity to rethink how to attract and retain workers. “It takes more than engineers to run a utility,” said Kimberly Howard, community education specialist at Portland General Electric. “We support an interdisciplinary approach to a talented workforce. Our mid-flight workers are learning from our interns and vice versa. The learning is going back and forth.”

GEARED student explains his research to a DistribuTECH attendee

A big part of GEARED is learning what industry needs and translating those needs into curriculum. Panelists agreed that partnering with universities that have strong power systems curriculum, like those in the GEARED network, was not only smart, it was essential to promoting the electric utility industry as a desirable place to work. GEARED encourages utilities to partner with universities to develop innovative curriculum and supplemental courses to attract and retain top utility talent.

“The single greatest initiative a company can effect to ensure a strong pipeline of power engineering talent is engaging locally with universities that are shaping the next generation of power engineers,” said Sarubbi.

How do millennials view the utility culture?  What advice might they give utilities?

Stephen Collins, former distributed energy resource engineer in Southern California Edison’s advanced technology group, who led the engineering elements for the University of Southern California’s FluxHome for the 2013 Solar Decathlon; who holds degrees in physics and electrical engineering; and who now works as vice president of product development for a start-up for high density, high efficiency motors and generators because he “…wants to make a difference in the world by making clean, reliable energy universally available and affordable.”

“When it comes to investing in talent, teach us transferable skills, and don’t be afraid that we’ll leave,” he said. “Don’t be surprised if we return in a different capacity to work with you on an important project.”

GEARED student, Sergio Alzate, University of Puerto Rico/Mayaguez, explains his research to Vista High School students

Encouraging students to pursue engineering starts early. Students from two local high schools toured the poster session and heard from GEARED students what inspired them to study engineering. Not surprisingly, the high schoolers and GEARED students share a common ideal: they want to solve global problems; to go into the world and do good.