Industry, education partner to develop technicians, engineers for long-term employment

You probably recall the quotation, “Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Might the same be said for public education? Jim Wood sounded an alarm on the sorry state of math, science, and engineering curricula in K-12 education with an opinion piece in the 1Q/2006 issue of CCJ. At that time, the then president of Babcock Power Inc was one of very few in the electric power industry to speak out on the rapid erosion of the nation’s technical leadership.

Not many in the industry paid much attention to the impact of “soft” education until they began feeling the impact of an ageing workforce: Technical personnel were retiring and capable replacements simply did not exist. STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs in elementary, mid, and high schools have gained visibility in the last several years, but they may meet expectations only with serious industry participation.

Plant Manager Dr Robert Mayfield, and his proactive team at Tenaska Virginia Generating Station, are grassroots participants in the crusade to make STEM a success in their home state through tutoring, financial support for science programs, math tournaments, etc. Others have taken note of their success and are getting involved; progress is being made.

Progress also is being made in the development of craft skills both at the high school level and beyond. One cooperative program between industry and education that is win (for the school)/win (for the student)/win (for the industry) is the hands-on program developed by the Ft Myers Institute of Technology and Turbine Generator Maintenance Inc to train turbine mechanics. This is only one of several such programs the editors have been made aware of.

College-level engineering programs focusing on technologies that underpin the production and delivery of electricity faded over the last couple of decades. Two reasons: Fewer engineers were required in the maturing industry after the nuclear bust; other engineering disciplines received bigger paychecks. Today, however, the downsizing of the armed forces, where many of the industry’s best trained employees received their education and experience, has created the need for more university-level programs.

One of those, the Power Plant Technology course at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, was started in 2007 at the urging of American Electric Power. Today the program benefits from an Industry Advisory Board with members from virtually all utilities and independent power producers operating in Oklahoma.

Graduates earn an Associate of Applied Science degree in Power Plant Technology after two years. Rick Shackelford, plant manager, Green Country Energy, and Vice Chair of CTOTF’s Combined Cycle Roundtable, chairs the advisory board. More on the OSU program in an upcoming CCJ ONsite.

The foregoing suggests an educational commitment of about 11 to 13 years to develop qualified candidates for the industry’s technician and engineering positions—assuming STEM classes begin in about the fourth grade. The employer’s challenge is to “grow” capable hires into productive employees. Equally important is having a viable retention plan for employees who adapt well to workplace demands.

NV Energy’s successful 2014 Best Practices Award entry, “Engineer Development and Retention Program,” offers insights that other power generators can benefit from. The utility described its challenge this way: Strong, sustainable technical capability is critical to ensure the reliability of NV Energy’s generation fleet, help the engineering team achieve the company’s technical goals, and benefit customers. Competition is keen for engineers with generation experience and the pool of individuals with this background is shrinking throughout the US.

Like many other power generators, NV Energy has worked diligently to develop its own engineers by hiring college graduates and then rotating them through various engineering experiences. But, the company continued to encounter the frustration of providing three or four years of technical experience, and then watching as some employees were hired away for a slightly higher salaries or promises of more engaging engineering work.

For these reasons, the utility created an Engineering Development Program that accomplishes the following:

      • Develops new engineers through training and work experiences while working outside of a traditional engineering office environment and in a specific assigned powerplant.

      • Provides multiple paths for advancement and clearly lets the new engineers know what to expect during their training and development program and what possibilities exist for those who stay at NV Energy.

      • Provides a mentoring system to guide the engineers during their development growth and as they navigate through future career decisions.

      • Creates a personal reference manual for each engineer to use during their development to track progress and better evaluate their potential.

      • Offers an additional recruiting tool for potential new hires, as they realize that the company values their schooling and will help shepherd their growth and chosen engineering career path.

A team of experienced NV Energy engineers and leaders from engineering, operations, maintenance, HR, and organizational development organized and implemented a process to develop engineers for the generation fleet. The complete engineering lifespan from intern to senior leadership and subject-matter expert positions was included in the Engineering Development Program. Its scope included the following:

      • Benchmarking of engineering firms and other utilities. A key takeaway from this effort: Most electric utilities did not have structured programs to develop generation engineers.

      • Developing career paths for the following four areas: subject matter experts, plant engineering, project management, and engineering leadership.

      • Identifying what experiences are required to move into each type of position.

      • Identifying skills engineers need to acquire during their development—both technical and non-technical.

      • Creating technical and functional training programs to support skills-development—including company-sponsored courses, self-taught courses, experience opportunities, and external training resources and mentoring.

      • Developing a process to transfer knowledge from highly experienced engineers (internal and external to the company) to developing engineers.

Plant engineers. The Engineering Development Program team also established a methodology and a manual for developing current and future plant engineers. The manual clearly describes the process that each engineer must complete as he or she through various tracks and promotions. Each engineer completes a qualification card for each promotion step. Once completed, and after a standard period of time, the engineer can petition a review board to determine if he or she is ready for promotion.

College graduates enter the program as associate plant engineers. During this first phase, they are assigned to a mentor, and it is intended that they spend about 70% of their time training and the rest of their time receiving hands-on experiences at a powerplant.

After two years, promising employees become eligible for promotion to plant engineer. Once promoted, they begin completing a new qualification card. During this period, it is expected that they will spend about 30% of their time in training and learning, the balance in performing productive engineering work.

After three years as plant engineer, the employee is eligible for promotion to senior plant engineer. If recognized for a promotion, the employee can choose one of several career paths to pursue—including (1) a staff-level engineering position at a powerplant or in the corporate office, (2) project manager, or (3) operational leadership. These paths are clearly illustrated in the manual. The goal of this program is to provide a clear picture of future opportunities to help retain engineers.

NV Energy has had five engineers participate in the Engineering Development Program since it was implemented, with these results:

      • During the past year, one plant engineer was promoted to senior plant engineer, and one associate plant engineer was promoted to plant engineer.

      • All engineers in the program are progressing through their qualification process on schedule.

      • Performance continues to be monitored through quarterly meetings with each engineer, plus interactions with their mentors and their managers.

      • To date, the retention of engineers within the program has been 100%.

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