Ask The Audience: How Do We Combat the Aging of the Energy Industry?

June 6, 2011

Career, Industry News

The average energy professional in the workforce right now is over 50 years old.

Over half of the workforce is within 5-10 years of retirement.

The industry’s job market is expected to triple in the next 10 years. 

With these three statements in mind, it looks like the energy industry is going to be experiencing a massive knowledge drain in the coming years. And that is a problem. The institutional knowledge in the energy industry is heading for a cliff and we just can’t let that happen.  So I have some questions for you.

I want to know what my readership thinks here so I encourage you to pick a question (or pick all the questions!) and spill the beans on potential solutions.

Your opinions are valuable beyond measure to me. Please hop down to the comments section and tell me how you think the brain drain could be handled and remedied.

  • How does the industry best prepare younger generations to step in and fill those roles?
  • What strengths can Gen Y capitalize on in the absence of the decades of experience our predecessors have brought to the table?
  • What partnerships can energy employers take advantage of to maximize qualifications of future candidates (colleges, high schools, social media pursuits, external career coaching, etc)?
  • How can energy employers collect, organize, and redistribute the institutional knowledge of the aged workforce of present day to best prepare and train the up-and-comers of tomorrow?

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24 Comments on “Ask The Audience: How Do We Combat the Aging of the Energy Industry?”

  1. Sean Huberty Says:

    Universities need to embrace the field. The first problem is that there’s a lot of confusion surrounding anything labeled “Green”. Even in academia, I find a lot of people are not aware of much beyond recycling, wind power, and that eating meat uses more water. Therefore, they don’t think there’s a need. I hear speeches on “sustainability” ad nauseum, but the speakers are sadly primitive in their understanding of the issues surrounding energy. Engineers get it for the most part, but in my talks with engineering professors, they firmly believe a regular mechanical engineering degree will do for energy engineering. I disagree. So does the National Science Foundation.

    A lot of what needs to be researched comes from the HVAC world, a trade long ignored and misunderstood. When is the last time you heard about an HVAC disaster? Also, when is the last time you heard someone say, “It’s so uncomfortable in here, we should call an HVAC technician”. You don’t hear it because people don’t understand it. They open windows, turn on fans, bring space heaters, etc…

    Buildings as environmental systems is still a young discipline. Air conditioning is barely 100 years old and wasn’t put into widespread use until nearly 50 years later. Energy modeling software has a lot of bugs to work out and is underfunded. It’s a perfect example of the confusion surrounding the needs of the field. Modern video games are a multi billion dollar industry. Talented teams pump out flawless games with loads of physics engines in use and realistic graphics. Meanwhile, energy modeling programs crash often, pay no attention to proper GUI design, and are confusing to operate. Current energy professionals don’t use modern tools as much as they could, so they aren’t asking for better programs.

    Reply

    • Madam Energy Says:

      Sean, I couldn’t agree more with all of your points here. But let’s push this further – what’s the next step for the industry in regards to energy modeling software? How do we start building software at the level of modern video gaming? We should talk more about this idea offline sometime, too. Thanks for bringing such an academic approach to this! I really appreciate it.

      Reply

  2. Blessing Says:

    Meghan, I am a regular reader as I am a recent graduate of Chemical Engineering and currently work in the Chemical industry. I am very interested in Energy Consulting and hope to start my own consulting firm very soon. I think that our energy problem is a national issue. America is not giving priority to this issues, instead we are focusing more on twitter, groupon, living social, etc., instead of innovating and solving the world’s toughest challenge. Our problem stems from what Sean pointed out above that school’s are not embracing this notion either. They are more interested in pushing out graduates like babies instead of walking them through challenges that we truly face.

    I think the “age” issue is present in all engineering industry. We have been hiring like crazy in my company because over 60% of its workers are over 58 and that spells disaster for our sustainability.

    Love your blog and would love to talk to you more personally sometime soon when you get a chance.

    Reply

    • Madam Energy Says:

      Blessing, I’m glad to hear you’re a regular reader! I agree that venture capitalist investments are heavy in the social media/deals space right now and that, though financially less long-term and risky than energy innovation, it’s the wrong space for our nation’s future. Energy should be a major attraction for investors.

      A question for the engineering industry as a whole: how do you folks capture the years of knowledge and experience from the older, retiring engineers and make it available for the new, up and coming ones? I see this as a challenge many employers will need to tackle or they’ll risk having their younger workforce rising in the ranks without enough experience, mentors, etc.

      Find me via email or Twitter from my About page, Blessing. I’d love to connect personally!

      Reply

      • Energy Consult Says:

        I think that we need to increases mentorship and start hiring new people in other to make manufacturing/energy industry more sustainable. And I am not talking the regular mentor programs but really train people to develop other. Managers who will focus on providing opportunities that may not necessarily be easy but a challenge for us younger folks instead of just giving us paperwork or pushing us into the field with no direction.

      • Madam Energy Says:

        Mentorships are so important! I think we can make big strides in mentorship program effectiveness by tracking success through metrics and surveys.

  3. Sean Huberty Says:

    One more thing to prove my point. Psychrometrics pops up on nearly every spell checker including MS Word. This tells me concepts in energy are still off the map. We’re in the information age and our terms and concepts are not even recognized by computers. Really?

    Reply

    • Madam Energy Says:

      Arg! Such a good point! “Lappy” (short for laptop) and “Bestie” (short for best friend) are now in the Oxford dictionary but psychrometrics is not recognized by spell check. How do we, as energy professionals, make an impact with this? How can we make the language of energy more recognized and more common?

      Reply

      • Sean Huberty Says:

        Right now I am listening to a lecture on the health effects of non-optimal relative humidity in buildings. We spend most of our time inside these days and there are some serious health effects associated with relative humidity issues. How do you solve them? With a psychrometric chart, of course. When is the last time you heard a story on health about updating mechanical systems to optimize relative humidity to combat allergies, asthma, and viruses? I do hear about air filters all the time, but that’s only part of the story.

      • Madam Energy Says:

        So what’s the solution here?

        If you’d like to write an article like that, I’ll help you pitch it to some big health blogs/sites. ;o)

  4. energyjim Says:

    I think your article looks at the younger worker side of the issue. There are plenty of experienced workers who have been through the Fuel Use Act, shortages of the 80’s, and other supply disruptions who are willing to stay engaged and mentor the next generation of energy workers. Training is needed but you also need some input from those who have learned lessons and lived through previous shortages and problems. Keeping them engaged in some way is necessary to augment the younger workforce and their lack of long term experience. This should give you the best of both worlds.

    Reply

    • Madam Energy Says:

      Jim, this post is more or less focused on how to equip younger generations (both currently employed or aspiring energy pros) to fill the shoes of the knowledge-heavy experienced workers as they retire in the next 5-10 years. I do agree that input from those experienced workers is absolutely crucial – but I don’t know that mentoring is enough (or as universally applicable) in more technical fields.

      Do you have any ideas on how to capture the knowledge our more experienced workers have and help distribute it to those less experienced? The industry, in the coming years, is going to have more employees under 35 per experienced pro than most people realize just yet. I think capturing the 50+ knowledge bank via screencasts, video trainings, and job-shadowing will all be essential to storing and organizing the knowledge our retiring workforce has.

      Reply

  5. Mark W. Says:

    I haven’t seen it mentioned in the post or comments so I will add PR and more voices are needed to make more people aware of the energy industry and associated professions. I think that’s what you do here on this blog, Megan. We just need it on a larger scale. The message needs to reach the older, knowledgeable workers who are retiring and the high school age students who are trying to determine their future careers. I’m not sure how to accomplish this mission but I know it’s not by getting rid of guidance counselor positions in the high schools.

    Reply

    • Madam Energy Says:

      Mark, I like this angle a lot. I wonder how we can most effectively the older brain trust that’s on the verge of retiring? It may be most effective for internal company-wide generational training groups. Maybe have training departments collaborate with the older staff to create screen-casts, downloadable training lessons, etc. I really like Khan Academy’s blackboard webinar technique – http://www.khanacademy.com . What do you think?

      Perhaps employers could partner with local high schools on career day efforts? And maybe when HR departments do recruiting events and career fairs, they could personally invite HS guidance counselors to the events to talk about the types of careers in energy? My alma mater is developing a pipeline program to take school kids in k-12, work with them through MS and HS, then community college, and lastly onto a 4-year school program (primarily in engineering). See Sean in the comments above if you have questions about the pipeline approach – he’s the one that made it happen for my alma mater. 🙂

      Reply

      • Mark W. Says:

        I’ve been aware of Sal Khan and his Web Academy for a year or two. I think he’s very talented and his blackboard, webinar technique is very effective. However, I think it’s his talent and enthusiasm for teaching that really makes him stand out. So your suggestion of a team approach (training staff and older, knowledgeable, retiring workers) sounds really good to me.
        I have a question for you. Different generations inherently have different outlooks and challenges with another generation. Add on top of that the fact we are in a very difficult economy and employment environment. Is there reluctance, fear, or resistance from older workers who are afraid of being terminated early after they have sufficiently trained their replacements? I have this feeling they may say it isn’t so but I have to wonder – even in a field as good as energy efficiency.
        Also, another thought for those high school students who have an interest in science should be encouraged to work on and exhibit their work in regional science fairs. I’ve been a judge for a number of years but the percentage of energy related projects is pretty small.

      • Madam Energy Says:

        That is a good question, Mark. Personally, I’ve not heard water cooler talk at my office about this sort of thing but I can imagine it is at least in the back of some minds. Oooo… regional science fairs! That is an awesome outlet. Who helps kids to determine what their science projects will be – teachers or parents? That would be a fun way to tap into the youth crowd. Did you hear about the Department of Energy’s new program for students? It’s called America’s Home Energy Challenge and there will also be a President’s Energy Fitness award much like the physical fitness award. I’d share a link but I’ve got no access to my bookmarks here so I’ll just suggest to Google it.

  6. Tom Kovalak Says:

    Good post Meg. I’m one of those people that have been around forever and will eventually be a the age I need to think about walking away from this industry that’s been so good to me. I’ll be 43 on October 15 and October 14 will be the 26th year since I started in the energy industry!

    I think there needs to be a push in the high schools first that clearly explains ALL the options available in this industry. It needs to focus on jobs at electric utilities, wind, solar and geothermal energy manufacturers, engineering companies that manage the installation of these measures and energy efficiency implementation companies as well. This should be done by both seasoned professionals (geezers like me) as well as newbies who will get the attention even more of young people looking to branch into this industry. We need to have career fairs and classroom presentations and get them fired up! This goes the same for those at the college/university level.

    Once the seed is planted, then it will take nurturing and a bit of hand holding to help them see the potential of this industry. They need to know they will be doing more than just helping the environment. They will be creating energy sources that will fuel the growth of the economy, they will help create jobs as these types of businesses expand and they will be earning a salary that will allow them to enjoy life and provide for themselves and their families.

    Ok, that’s all I got! 😉

    Reply

    • Madam Energy Says:

      Oh, Tom… I think you bring up a great point! As much as renewables will have a place in the future, they are certainly not the backbone of the power industry and youngsters need to know that. I like the career fair/classroom presentation ideas. So glad you took the time to read and comment. Lansing misses you!

      Reply

    • Sean Huberty Says:

      Tom, LCC received a grant from NSF to build a pathway to energy careers from secondary through post-secondary to a job. Any advice would be welcome.

      Reply

      • Madam Energy Says:

        Sean, in case Tom didn’t subscribe to comment updates on this thread – let me know and I’ll provide an introduction on LinkedIn if you’d like.

  7. Sean Huberty Says:

    sure

    Reply

  8. Madam Energy Says:

    Just found an article about an online course for college elective credit, provided to high school students, called Light Up Your Future. It’s focused on providing career and math skills needed to enter into the Electric Power industry. Sounds like a pretty neat approach to make these career options known to students! http://bit.ly/iXLyY1

    Reply

  9. Tina Semotan Says:

    How does the industry best prepare younger generations to step in and fill those roles?

    First off, organization need to be aware of the problem (so, thank you for bringing it up as a discussion point).

    Many companies today are too focused on just getting by that they are not lifting their heads up to see what is coming. That would be the first step. After that, it is about prioritization. It is way too easy to say that you will get to these types of initiatives and never do. If you put the right level of prioritization on this issue and do something about it now, you can make an impact on the future. It does not have to be too big to handle, take baby steps. Start with educating your staff about the generational differences and the industry trends, form focus groups to discuss and brainstorm ideas for correcting this issue within your own company and then share this information with other companies within the industry.

    It starts with us!

    Reply

    • Madam Energy Says:

      Awareness, prioritization, baby steps, share with the industry – I love this. My favorite part: Not keeping our solutions a secret! So many companies’ modus operandi involves gaining competitive edge through trade secrets, private developments, etc. I think sharing techniques with other industry partners is a phenomenal step in the right direction for the industry as a whole! Without a strong market, none of us will succeed.

      Reply

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