ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT HEADS ASSOCIATION

September 2016

Featured Article

An Industry Perspective on Education Needed for the Next Century Power Grid
By: Wanda Reder, S&C Electric Company

Throughout my 30-year career, it has been fascinating to watch how the power industry has transformed. The relatively stable electric system that has evolved over the past 100+ years is now experiencing an unprecedented rate of change due to emerging technologies, customer preferences and behaviors, the regulatory climate, aging infrastructure, and increasing security concerns to name a few.  For the foreseeable future, decarbonizing and modernizing the grid to serve the economic needs of the 21st century will be a priority. 

The transformation places new demands on the power engineering workforce.  Engineering workforce education and development have been a passion of mine that drove the launch of the IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Initiative, with the goal of attracting the best and brightest young engineers into the power industry. Since 2011, 942 scholarships have been released to 587 undergraduate engineers, attending more than 150 US and Canadian Universities. The pipeline of undergraduates taking power in the US and Canada has nearly doubled since 2006 as a result, yet there is still much work to be done.



Wanda Reder with IEEE PES Scholarship Plus recipients in Boston, July 2016

Beyond being technically competent, forward looking characteristics in the ideal future workforce likely will be inclusive, innovative, nimble, flexible, multi-disciplinary, collaborative, articulate and customer-focused.  Yet these traits don’t necessarily describe the present day power industry workforce.  So, as the electrical grid continues to evolve, what changes in engineering educational processes will help transform the workforce that designs, develops, operates and maintains the electrical grid?  Here are six tips to better prepare engineers for the future power industry workforce. 

1. Get Serious about an Inclusive, Confident, and Diverse Workforce

The North America power industry has terrific opportunity to increase gender and ethnic diversity and improve inclusiveness in the workforce. For example, according to IEEE Power & Energy Society membership statistics, less than 10% of power engineering related jobs are held by women in the US and Canada. Important skill sets of the future will include the ability to collaborate, lead diverse work groups, and relate to consumer needs in order to embrace creative solutions for the evolving utility business model.  By increasing diversity, these traits will be enhanced; however, little has been done to create a comprehensive framework that incorporates diversity at its core. New research points to a concept of having clusters of under-represented individuals, creating a safer environment to foster the process of sharing unique perspectives, rather than holding back ideas. This environment bolsters the confidence to share hunches and insights, which is critically important for rapidly generating ideas that lead to technical innovation.  Innovation will be key to delivering products and services that meet evolving customer expectations as they transition from power users to prosumers, and are increasingly using renewables that supply power in a distributed fashion, both of which are fundamentally transforming the electric grid.   

2. Tell the Story to Attract the Best

Like power, electronics and computational systems that support our daily lives are taken for granted.  To create the workforce of the future, we need to convey the importance, excitement and promise that Electrical and Computer Engineering careers offer. We are introducing new technology, becoming greener, and are the lifeblood to society at large—tightly coupled with economic development and global prosperity.  To attract the best and brightest, messaging needs to connect our work to the comforts we depend upon, and convey how societal aspirations can be achieved through technology.  Engineering careers are not well understood and are best described through story.  We need to identify the stories that highlight the excitement of engineering careers and convey them more broadly to attract talent for the future.  

3. Provide Hands-on Learning and Teamwork

New hires are much more valued if they have application aptitude, such as project management, engineering design or protection experience.  Practical experience can be obtained through summer internships and by incorporating increased application oriented experiences into education that facilitate hands-on, experiential learning. Doing so in a team environment also better prepares students for the realities of the workplace.  By incorporating these elements, students can become more productive earlier and generally develop better interpersonal skills that are important for the future.  Internships can be found through IEEE PES Careers, http://pes-careers.org/, which is a complimentary on-line service that power engineering students can use up to one year after graduation to connect with future employers. 

4. Emphasize the Value of Networking 

Who you know is almost as important as what you know. Students can be better prepared to effectively network by learning skills in college.  They can attend lectures on campus, introduce themselves to speakers, participate in IEEE Chapter activity locally, and learn to “work the crowd” at conferences when delivering papers.  While networking in this day and age is connecting online through social media, there is no substitute for a traditional, face-to-face meeting.  Educators should nurture this valuable life-long skill development, which can reap significant rewards throughout a professional career. 

5. Educate Within the Context of Converging Technical Disciplines

It is becoming increasing clear that innovation is occurring at the intersection of technical disciplines.  After serving as the IEEE Power & Energy Society President, I realized that the technologies supporting smart grid development went well beyond the power domain. As a result, I launched IEEE Smart Grid in 2010, which today has over 100,000+ followers and is supported by 14 IEEE technical societies and the IEEE Standards Association.  This is an example where power, computer, communications, sensing, data management and more converge and require technical contributions from a variety of experts.  To promote multi-disciplinary collaboration and advancement for the future, it’s important to challenge traditional educational silos by supporting opportunities and research that bring various disciplines together to solve real world problems.  

6. Incorporate Business Knowledge and Effective Communications

It is no longer enough to be technically proficient.  A leader needs to understand finances and contracts, and communicate complex ideas simply and effectively.  Classes in business, literature, and visual design can help business acumen and improve the ability to communicate effectively. Cultural experiences, or proficiency in a second language, can also better support careers that are increasingly global in nature. 

As the grid transforms, so will the needs of its technical workforce. Developing soft skills throughout the education process is critically important.  These six proposed ideas are intended to develop anticipated power engineering traits that will lead to increased innovation and workforce flexibility.  These elements will be important to support grid transformation and electric needs of the next century.



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2017 IEEE President-Elect Candidate (IEEE election is open August 15 – October 3, 2016), member of the National Academy of Engineering, and IEEE Fellow, Wanda Reder is the Chief Strategy Officer at S&C Electric Company, Chicago, IL. She is a member of the IEEE Foundation Board, member of IEEE Board 2014-2015, first female President of the IEEE Power & Energy Society Board 2008-09, launched and chaired IEEE Smart Grid, launch and chaired IEEE PES Scholarship Plus and was the IEEE Richard M. Emberson Medal recipient in 2014. She is also a member of United States Secretary of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee.  See www.wandareder.com.  

 


 
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