In energy & utilities, the work is varied & always interesting
"It's exciting to be a direct participant in planning and implementation of a large-scale company-wide initiative." – Lorena Castro, CenterPoint Energy
"We aren't just looking at what they're doing today, but what's coming in the next five years." – Katrina Hutchinson, Itron
By Sue Marquette Poremba
The career outlook appears to be a mixed bag for technical people in the energy and utilities industries. The current Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts that overall employment in utilities will decrease by 11 percent through 2018. The culprit, surprisingly, is technology itself.
"Despite increased output, employment in electric power generation, transmission and distribution and in natural gas distribution is expected to decline because of improved technology that will increase worker productivity," the report states.
On the other hand, employment in utilities like water treatment and sewage systems is anticipated to increase by 13 percent. As the U.S. population continues to grow, more water treatment facilities are being built. And changing federal and state water quality regulations may require more workers to ensure that water is safe to drink and to release into the environment.
IT, of course, is essential everywhere, as much in energy and utilities as any other industries. The All Things Political website points out in its jobs report that IT people, especially those involved in network systems and data communications, will have good opportunities as the utilities become ever more dependent on automation and smart-grid technologies.
Meanwhile, read about these nine diverse techies, meaningfully contributing in a variety of jobs to be found in the essential energy and utilities industries. And check out the list of energy and utility companies eager to bring in diverse techies.
Tommy Ng of SoCal Edison: remote sites are the exciting challenge
Working for a BSEE at California State University-Los Angeles, Tommy Ng studied communications and power. He also had an internship with Southern California Edison (Rosemead, CA), working on VoIP, and when he graduated in 2009 the utility offered him a job. "I gladly accepted it," he says. "During the summer internship I did lots of time-sensitive projects in microwave and data refresh. Those helped me make the transition to fulltime employee after I graduated. And there is so much more to learn!"
Ng is a telecommunications engineer; he's currently working with data and transmission engineering. "I'm responsible for refreshing out-of-date or recently maintained infrastructure and implementing new technology," he explains. "I tell the technicians to take old routers off the network and install the new versions."
He also works to provide data service to clients in the SoCal Edison territory. "We used to have an analog PBX telephone system, but we're migrating off that to provide VoIP for all our clients."
One of the interesting challenges of his work is getting to the remote sites his job requires. "Maybe I'll need to go to the top of a mountain, so I'll need to be with someone prepared for off-road driving," he explains. "We have to get to those sites, survey the equipment, and make sure everything is running and up to current standards."
Ng's father was an electrician. "I liked what my dad did, and I was encouraged to try EE," Ng says. In addition to his tech duties he spends time working with student interns, handing out projects, letting them shadow him on the job and encouraging them.
Karmen Martin: tech support at LG&E and KU Energy LLC
As a distribution operations engineer at LG&E and KU Energy LLC (Louisville, KY), Karmen Martin provides technical support for design and construction as it relates to standards. "I also solve problems with customer complaints by performing analyses, identifying solutions, recommending improvements and ensuring proper system design and protection," she explains.
Martin got her BSEE from Hampton University (Hampton, VA). She had always liked math and science, and in high school she had the chance to job-shadow an engineer; that made up her mind for her.
She's currently working to implement new cable-rejuvenation technologies on the company's underground residential distribution circuits. This, she says, will improve the dielectric strength of the cables and improve the reliability of the whole system.
Martin did three co-ops with LG&E and KU in college, and joined the company when she graduated in 2007. "One of the interesting challenges at this point in my career is the continuous technical education to keep me up with the trends in the industry," she says.
Mary Hiner is a substation engineer at Alliant Energy
Mary Hiner was the first girl of twelve children born to her Croatian parents; she grew up on the family's farm in Iowa. Her father saw and encouraged her problem-solving skills with frequent requests: "I was wondering if you could help me figure this out," he would say. She found that engineering "was a profession where I could use my skills and interests to the utmost level and benefit others along the way."
Hiner got her 1992 BSEE at Iowa State University. Her career began at Motorola, supporting the production of portable and mobile FM radios.
She left the technical world to raise a family, on the way helping to start a preschool, doing substitute teaching in four school districts and working part-time on satellite receivers as a contract engineer.
In 2008 Cedar Rapids, IA was flooded, and Hiner was asked to help out in a procurement group working onsite at the Alliant Energy Prairie Creek generation facility there. Her work was so appreciated that she was encouraged to apply for a full-time engineering position. She did, and is now a substation engineer.
"I am currently part of a team working on standardizing Alliant Energy's open-air circuit breaker distribution substation design," Hiner says. "I'm also working with a group on the design of a 69/12.5 kV substation to be built in Jefferson, IA."
Her job is to ensure correct line phasing, equipment specs, conductor size and electrical clearance. "For each substation project I create a complete package of for-construction drawings, including below grade, above grade and electrical. It's also my responsibility to provide technical support to field crews when needed during construction."
Lorena Castro: tech lead on CenterPoint's AMR team
CenterPoint Energy, Inc (Houston, TX) is a domestic energy-delivery company that offers electric transmission and distribution and a variety of natural gas operations including distribution, sales and services, interstate pipelines and field service ops. Lorena Castro interned at CenterPoint while working on her BSIE at the University of Houston. When she completed the IE in 2004 she was hired on as a gas distribution designer. Today she's technical and diagnostics lead on the utility's gas automated meter reading (AMR) team.
"The team is transitioning gas customers to AMR technology," she says. "I'm currently in charge of managing the installation of AMR devices for special accounts that require additional customer contact to complete the installation."
Along the way Castro has had the chance to learn new technology and operating systems. "It's exciting to be a direct participant in the planning and implementation of a large-scale company-wide initiative," she says.
Castro always loved science and math. She chose IE because "It includes the human impact in engineering processes and design."
But engineering hasn't always been an easy road. "Being a woman and a minority aspiring to be an engineer created some obstacles," she explains. "On more than one occasion I was told by my professors that I should transfer to a 'more feminine' career. Instead of discouraging me, this motivated me more. I graduated with honors and am fortunate to have found a company that offers encouragement and support to all."
She's been involved in college recruiting for CenterPoint. "I enjoy talking to students because it puts my career journey up to this point in perspective. I remember when I was the person on the other side of the booth looking for the right opportunity!"
Sandra Johnson manages business apps at Shell Oil
New Orleans native Sandra Johnson was at Tulane University (New Orleans, LA) working on a BS in speech pathology when a friend made a suggestion. "She worked for the geosciences department at Shell Oil and thought I should apply for a job there while I finished my speech pathology thesis," she recalls. "My plan was to work for Shell for about six months and then go to grad school."
She was given a job involving IT work even though she didn't have an IT background, and as she attended training classes she discovered that she loved computers. She finished her BS in 1981 but stayed on at Shell, later going to evening school at Tulane for a 1985 BS in IS.
Today Johnson is upstream Americas business applications management manager at Shell Oil (Houston, TX). Her department is responsible for the business apps used by engineers, geologists, HR and other departments. "These are the applications that keep the business running," Johnson says. "We also partner with our Shell counterparts around the globe who provide other applications."
She oversees a staff of 120, both Shell Oil employees and contractors based across the U.S. and North and South America.
Since joining Shell, Johnson has seen tremendous changes in technology and how the world conducts business. "One of the major changes is the global nature of the job. Within Shell Oil, we all have the same hardware and applications.
"Back when I started I'd submit a job and have to wait a day for the results. Now, two seconds is too long to wait for a result!" she says.
Johnson has been in this job for a year. One of her previous jobs was U.S. talent and diversity manager for IT. "My role at that time was to make sure diversity was brought into the talent process, so I was involved in recruitment and retention," she notes.
Katrina Hutchinson: in the smart grid solutions group at Itron
When Katrina Hutchinson was at Clemson University (Clemson, SC) she worked as a co-op at Itron (West Union, SC). She was offered a full-time job when she received her BSEE in 2000. She started as an application engineer and today she's a senior product manager.
Itron is an energy and water solutions company with almost 10,000 employees in eighty locations worldwide. "We provide solutions for all types of energy sources, gas or electric, and the water industry," she explains. "We supply everything from hardware components to software applications used upstream for business solutions."
Hutchinson currently works in the smart grid solutions group. "As we move technology to the electric grid, my responsibility is to look at utility applications and how they are embedded in our smart grid technology. We aren't just looking at what they're doing today, but what's coming in the next five years. I'm looking at future development and being a thought leader for the applications being used."
When Hutchinson first joined Itron she noticed a lot of aging, both of the company's resources and the workers themselves. "The aging workforce has brought an influx of young people," she reports. "The industry has been considered fairly conservative and slow to change, but what we're seeing now is a workforce that's embracing new technologies."
Another difference: "When I started, women in this industry tended to be in logistics or customer service. But now you see a lot of women in technical jobs."
Hutchinson helps recruit members of this new workforce, both women and minorities.
Reggie McCauley directs system ops for Pepco
As director of system operations for Pepco Holdings (Washington, DC), Reggie McCauley is responsible for operation of the Pepco electric system. One of the largest in the mid-Atlantic region, it serves 1.9 million customers in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland and New Jersey.
McCauley explains that a series of control rooms houses equipment that controls the flow of energy through the service region.
"My engineering is more in oversight and a knowledge base than hands-on," McCauley explains. "I'm a subject matter expert and a decision maker." Cybersecurity is an important part of the energy industry now, and he has to make sure the product is delivered both efficiently and securely.
McCauley joined Pepco after he received his BSME from North Carolina A&T in 1980. He also has two MBAs. The first, with a focus on financial management, was from Southeastern University (Washington, DC) in 1992. The second, in organizational behavior, came from George Washington University (Washington, DC) in 1994. "I wanted to pursue fields I was interested in," he explains, "I also hoped the education would be a catalyst for career advancement with a variety of skill sets."
McCauley is an active volunteer in Pepco communities. He's been executive sponsor for Pepco's United Way campaign, and works closely with schools in the Maryland area to encourage students' interest in technology-related careers. He provides mentors for the students from among his Pepco colleagues, and recruits students from North Carolina A&T for careers at Pepco.
McCauley notes that "Employee and supplier base diversity is a huge advantage to Pepco. Mirroring the demographics in both has a positive impact on the customer base and the health of the regional economy."
Charrisa Williams-Coulibaly: senior helpdesk analyst at PGW
As a girl, Philadelphia, PA native Charrisa Williams-Coulibaly loved technology. She even owned a Commodore 64, which at the time was considered the cutting edge of personal computing. "But I didn't realize then that you could have a career in technology," she says. "I enjoyed learning about why people behave in certain ways. So I decided psychology was something sensible to major in."
She completed a BS in psychology in 1992 at Morgan State University (Baltimore, MD) and worked in mental health for several years. But on the side, "I would help the IT guy at my job, staying late and coming in on the weekends, tagging along with him and getting some on-the-job training that way." She also studied on her own, and in a year she felt ready for a new career path.
In 1999 Williams-Coulibaly found her first IT job; she's been working in IT ever since. She became a senior helpdesk analyst at Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW, Philadelphia, PA) in 2007. She found the job through a PGW-sponsored job fair.
The work involves tech support for people inside the company, where the helpdesk is the first point of contact for computer issues. "I'm the technical lead for all the issues that come through the helpdesk," she says. She also provides ongoing mentoring and training for helpdesk staff.
A utility company like Philadelphia Gas Works depends on its computer system. "If the network goes down, that's a critical situation," Williams-Coulibaly says. "The gas service, the employees: everything is connected to computers. PGW depends heavily on technology, and if there's a system failure, getting things running again is an urgent matter."
Stacy Baskin implements cybersecurity for Southern Co
As IT manager at Southern Company (Birmingham, AL), Stacy Baskin leads IT implementation of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) cyber-security regulations in the company's nuclear plants. "Each nuclear operator submitted a plan to the NRC and we have to be sure that the actions we outlined in our plan are completed. I have a team of analysts at each of our plants who work with our engineering, IT security and physical security departments to execute our plans," Baskin explains.
Growing up in Atlanta, GA, Baskin was always interested in technology. "I was one of those kids that take their toys apart to see how they work, and of course I was fascinated with any kind of machinery."
He attended Georgia Institute of Technology where he earned a 1993 BSME. "My first job out of college was at Mead, the paper company, in Smyrna, GA. There my interest turned to project management," he explains.
He went on to management and project management roles at NEC Corp, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Lucent Technologies and Siemens Business Services. In 2005 he started at Southern Company as a project manager, and he's worked as an implementation manager for a number of technology efforts.
After hours, Baskin is an active volunteer at his daughters' elementary school.
The execs speak out on diversity
Bill Harvey, chair and CEO of Alliant Energy: "Our company is stronger because of our focus on creating a diverse and inclusive workforce."
Stacy Kilcoyne, Southern Company's HRVP and chief diversity officer: "Southern Company believes that an inclusive and diverse culture where all employees feel valued is critical to the company's success."
Malcolm Unsworth, Itron president and CEO: "Our employees' diverse perspectives and capabilities are key to achieving superior business results and developing a smarter future for us all."
DIVERSITY-MINDED ENERGY & UTILITY COMPANIES
Check websites for current openings.
|Company and location
|Alliant Energy (Madison, WI)
|Electric and gas service in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota
|BP America (Houston, TX)
|Energy production and delivery, including oil, natural gas and wind power
|CenterPoint Energy (Houston, TX)
|Natural gas distribution, sales and service in the eastern U.S.; electric service in metro Houston
|ConocoPhillips (Houston, TX)
|Integrated energy products and services
|Itron (Liberty Lake, WA)
|Solutions for energy and water resource management
|LGE-KU Energy (Louisville, KY)
|Diversified energy services in Kentucky and Virginia
|Pepco Holdings, Inc (Washington, DC)
|Energy delivery in the Mid-Atlantic
|Philadelphia Gas Works (Philadelphia, PA)
|Public Service Enterprise Group
|Shell Oil Company (Houston, TX)
|Diversified energy exploration and production
|Southern California Edison
|Electricity for central, coastal and southern California
|Southern Company (Atlanta, GA)
|Electricity generation and distribution in the Southeast
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