Recession Creates Demand for Engineers

Dec 13, 2010

by Jack Thornton

The layoffs and shutdowns that have erased thousands of manufacturing jobs across North America’s industrial heartland have rendered times tough for mechanical engineers. But a burgeoning global trend in the power industry offers hope.

In the south and southwest U.S., rising population and job growth have energy industry experts plotting a major rebuild and expansion of the electrical infrastructure to meet the booming demand. But before they can get their plans off the drawing board they must address another problem: finding qualified engineers to do the work.

In fact, three decades of scant new investment in power generation has created a shortage of engineers at precisely the moment they are needed most. Many engineers who lost their jobs during the utility company layoffs of the 1990s signed on with contractors and consulting firms, moved to other industries, or retired.

As a result, we now face a serious shortage of engineers who can tackle the industry’s most pressing problems. "If you crunch all the numbers," says Gary Golden, senior project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), "the power industry has about 10 percent of the engineers we need."

While the solution is certainly not as simple as mechanical engineers who used to work in the auto industry hanging out a new shingle, those able make the transition from manufacturing to energy will find there are plenty of jobs to go around.

Human resources professionals at dozens of power producers say hundreds of jobs are open in coal, nuclear, and natural-gas operations. The industry also seeks engineers for systems and equipment design and maintenance and outage management, including refueling the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors and thermal performance. Scale-ups of carbon sequestration, nuclear operations, and renewables—solar, wind, tidal—are also expected to create openings for engineers proficient in systems design, construction, and operating efficiency.

Engineers are also needed to develop, demonstrate, fund, and tap such new energy sources as renewables, biofuels, oil shale, and tar sands. Though these present major technical and economic challenges, securing a balanced supply of all types of economically viable fuels is one of the most pressing issues facing the energy industry.

Future job prospects for engineers look equally good. The Department of Energy projects that U.S. generating capacity must expand by 200 to 500 new plants by 2030, requiring the reconstruction and expansion of the distribution grid with tens of thousands of miles of high-voltage power lines. In the longer term, exploration of the feasibility of such energy sources as fusion and hydrogen will require engineers and researchers to push the boundaries of high-temperature materials and high-energy physics.

According to Jeffrey S. Nelson, head of the Energy and Infrastructure Future Group at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M, achieving all these goals will require big, costly, and intensive engineering and scientific programs. "The basic challenge in all of these starts with developing a predictable business environment, which includes investment portfolio standards, production tax credits, streamlined permitting processes, and growing the manufacturing supply chain." Meaning, he predicts, "thousands of engineers will be engaged for many years in…"

• Renewable-energy grid integration demonstration projects to validate the need for the new transmission and distribution capacity

Intelligent utility-to-home grid networks

• Storage of all sorts of power

• Systems to better manage the electrical grid

• Cyber security

• Nanomaterials, especially in photovoltaics

• Renewable liquid fuels

• Reliability improvements in the existing grid

What measures are required to ensure the supply of engineers can meet the expected demand? The trend toward falling enrollment at the nation’s engineering schools must be reversed. According to Golden, who is active in education efforts with both EPRI and ASME, U.S. engineering schools confer about 400,000 baccalaureate degrees annually in science and engineering, and the numbers grow slowly if at all.

To right the ship, colleges and universities must restore the power-industry related courses in engineering, technical procurement, and construction that were dropped as the demand for engineering skills fell during the 1990s. Concurrently, the disappearance of the math and science programs in the elementary and secondary schools Golden says we "rely on to feed students into the engineering colleges," must be restored.

Both Eaton and Golden agree the industry’s immediate answers to these challenges include persuading engineers of the Baby Boomer generation to work past normal retirement age and developing knowledge transfer initiatives for engineers entering the workforce.

What’s also clear is that there is optimism within the power industry that mechanical engineers from manufacturing can make the transition to the power industry. It will take some work but the existence of both engineering jobs and engineer shortages should galvanize mechanical engineers and all who employ them to find the way forward.

[Adapted from “Positions of Power” by Jack Thornton, for Mechanical Engineering, January 2010.]

It will take some work but the existence of both engineering jobs and engineering shortages should galvanize mechanical engineers and all who employ them to find the way forward.

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