Smart Grid Needs GOLD — Engineering Jobs With Electric Utilities

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As John McDonald tells it, smart grid needs GOLD. And he’s not talking money. GOLD stands for Graduates of the Last Decade, the technology savvy, risk-taking engineers and technicians who may be among the greatest benefactors of the new smart grid movement. While most recent college graduates face dismal employment prospects, for the GOLD kids, the job market is, well, golden.

“I’ve never seen electric utilities and suppliers outbidding each other for a bachelor’s degree,” said McDonald, who has had 35 years in the energy business and now serves as an IEEE Fellow and general manager of marketing for GE Energy T&D.

GOLDs benefit from two converging trends. The first is the sizable technical task that utilities face in integrating smart grid technologies. The second is the wave of retirements expected to hit the utility industry in the next five to seven years.

These young recruits will invigorate the utility industry, which is notorious for being risk adverse, a trait that has kept the lights on but also hinders adoption of new and more effective technologies.

Two utility cultures tend to dominate today, according to McDonald. One approaches smart grid with an “over my dead body” attitude. The second is about three retirements away from embracing smart grid.

These are folks who went to Block Buster and rented a game and learned how to use it in a matter of minutes.

“The older folks say we’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’ve got three years to retirement, and I’m not going to do anything new that might cause a problem,” he said. “That will go away with the GOLD folks. These are folks who went to Block Buster and rented a game and learned how to use it in a matter of minutes.”

Not only will GOLD engineers find it easy to get jobs in the electric power industry, but they also are likely to advance quickly in the ranks, McDonald said. Utilities have done little hiring in the last 15 years. Thus, the middle group – those in between upper management and new recruits – tends to be thin. So the way is clear for GOLDs to enter management early in their careers.

Demand for GOLDS is already strong, but it is likely to get even more intense. Smart grid is still new, only in the design/engineering phase, still to take on manufacturing and field deployment. More jobs will open as these stages occur.

What can engineering students do to position themselves for the plum jobs? McDonald advises that they pursue internships in the power and energy industry with electric utilities, testing labs and suppliers or snag research positions with professors. IEEE also has set up a website where job seekers can post resumes.

“It is exciting for me because my son is in that [GOLD] space. The potential for him is much greater than it is for me,” McDonald said. “I’m 58. Most of us who have been in the industry for a long time will be more than willing to give decision-making to this group.”

Author Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

photo: aaron_anderer

About Author

Elisa Wood is an editor at EnergyEfficiencyMarkets.com. She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

4 Comments

  1. Leni Berliner on

    Excuse me, but some of us “old” folks were into sustainability before it was cool, and we made it cool by making it possible for the “gold” generation to get college credit for thinking in “new” ways. And guess what, we need jobs too. So climb down off your high horse and stop promoting age discrimination among utilities.

    • Dr. MP Divakar on

      Amen to that, Leni!

      As some one who just hit fifties, I can relate to your sentiments quite well. And I am nursing a startup so it is not just GOLDs that take the risk. I do take part in many smart grid forums and standards setting bodies (like IEEE P2030, TIA TR-50) where more than 90% of the participation is by folks older than GOLD! Yep, this ‘old’ crowd is thinking and formulating ‘new’ ways for the next (hopefully) uber opportunity of ‘cleantech’. Cheers!

  2. Age discrimination is never acceptable. Here’s a concept: judge people on their merits. If people that see experience as a roadblock are designing the smart grid it may be time to stock up on flashlights and kerosene lanterns.

    Technology savvy and risk-taking qualities without experience are a recipe for disaster. Just take a look at the recent global financial meltdown where the old rules of having sufficient reserve capital were pushed aside for the new rules that produced the biggest financial meltdown since the 1930s.

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