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Where are the skilled workers?

Over the last few years, in many industries, and specifically in the power engineering industry, we have been talking about the brain drain. In the wake of experienced engineers retiring, we are finding there is not enough good stock to replenish the dwindling pool. I first heard of this “all-call” for engineering resources in 1998 when I started college. I was convinced that I had chosen the correct career path.

Now, here we are 16 years later, and I would say we are no better off as an industry. Power engineering professions face many challenges, none greater than the perception of, “It’s just not that cool to design substations, power plants and transmission lines.”

As an electrical engineer, I could provide many examples to provide a strong rebuttal to that belief. However, as many of you reading this are from other industries, I’d like to speak to a larger concern affecting us all, and that is a shortage of skilled workers.

With many people promoting a narrower focus on obtaining a college education to get ahead in life, skilled trades have been left in the dust. There are many examples of too much development planning and not enough workers to do the actual development. From electricians, pipe fitters and welders, to plumbers, carpenters and masons, there’s a shortage of skilled workers to complete jobs designed by an ever-dwindling engineering staff. The effects of these shortages are many and wide-ranging.

ConcreteThe need for skilled tradesmen affects salaries, schedules, budgets, and resourcing. It’s not a bad deal for those tradesmen already in the industry. But it’s important to note, as the race for skilled workers gets tighter, we will see more positions filled by those who are not 100 percent competent for the job. That can lead to the possibility of improper installation and/or execution of intended designs, resulting in often-hidden defects that could have disastrous results.

As a resident of North Dakota, I get to bear witness to a market with a severe skilled labor shortage, mostly due to the explosion of oil and gas development in the state. Tradesmen hop from one job to the next for the promise of another dollar (sometimes many more dollars). It leaves industries reeling to fill those positions and keep projects on track.

You may know who Mike Rowe is. For those who don’t, he’s the guy who used to do the Dirty Jobs television show. He has been a vocal supporter of education for skilled trades to the point of establishing a foundation to promote those trades and address what he calls the “Skills Gap.” That’s what we, as an industry, need to do to address a very real and immediate concern. Feel free to post your comments and/or stories of your experiences. The discussion needs to start somewhere and it may as well start here.

About the author

Mike is our account executive for the Renewable and Power markets. His responsibilities include serving renewable energy clients throughout the United States as well as utilities located in the western part of the country, and he specializes in developing renewable energy, energy storage and electronic power solutions for his clients. He has more than 10 years of experience as a project and substation engineer. His background encompasses project management, commissioning, protective relaying, SCADA systems, substations and switchyards, conduit and raceway systems, grounding systems, field investigation and testing. From issues and techniques to new technological developments, he keeps you updated on what's happening in clean power generation.