Joint Industry-Academia Collaborative Efforts

in Workforce Development for the Power Industry (Short Version)


Steven Whisenant1

Johan Enslin3

Mesut Baran4

Klaehn Burkes5

Badrul Chowdhury2

Randy Collins3

David Lubkeman4


1Duke Energy

2UNC Charlotte

3Clemson University

4North Carolina State University

5Savannah River National Laboratory


Abstract— This paper summarizes workforce development efforts that are underway in the Carolinas with the help of a regional industry-led consortium, namely, “The Center for Advanced Power Engineering Research (CAPER).” The three CAPER university members, Clemson University, NC State University, and UNC Charlotte, have met on a number of occasions to discuss the different aspects of workforce development efforts. We describe the entire process, from core competencies needed, to how and where the training should be done. For individuals aspiring to work in the power industry, in addition to possessing a strong knowledge in the fundamentals of power engineering, there are several other attributes that the industry looks for in a potential candidate. While industry is mostly clear on what attributes they look for in their new employee candidates, the challenge for universities is to build the right curriculum, offer opportunities to develop the soft skills, provide interaction with industry and build a spirit of collaboration among students in order to prepare them for future careers in power engineering. This paper discusses a variety of university and industry perspectives and experiences with developing the curriculum and why it is essential the to involve all industry stakeholders in the educational process.

Index Terms—Power and energy education, workforce development, curriculum development, industry collaboration, internship.


I.   Introduction

The electric utility industry is undergoing a transformational change in recent years. Driven by an infusion of new technology and a paradigm shift from conventional to non-conventional power generation, the industry is surging ahead at a very fast pace. While the core business of the electric utility – that of serving customers – has not changed structurally, there are plenty of challenges ahead. While these challenges can range from slow load growth to dealing with shifting regulations, one challenge that needs immediate attention is the development of a technically skilled utility workforce. According to the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD), the average age for energy employees is close to 50, and thousands are poised to retire in the next 10 years, leaving over 500,000 unfilled jobs. As a whole, the age curve for the industry has flattened, as older workers have retired and younger workers have been hired. Yet, Investor Owned Utilities have the oldest current workforce, with 35% over the age of 53. Significant recruiting and hiring will have to take place just to keep pace with staffing to stay at current levels. Even greater challenges are expected in order to add to the current workforce levels.

Replacing the current workforce added with the growing need for new employees, provides many opportunities for students desiring to go into the power and energy sector.

Workforce development efforts are underway in the Carolinas with the help of a regional industry-led consortium called, the Center for Advanced Power Engineering Research (CAPER) [1]. CAPER members have come together on a number of occasions to discuss the different aspects of workforce development efforts. This paper will describe the entire process, from what core competencies the industry needs in its future workforce to how and where the training should be done.

Industry is clear on what attributes they look for in students to build their new employee candidate pools. The challenge for universities is to build the right curriculum, offer opportunities to develop the soft skills, provide interaction with industry and build a spirit of collaboration among students in order to prepare them for future careers in power engineering.

                                                                                                    II.   What the Industry Needs for its Workforce

At the spring 2016 CAPER meeting, several representatives from leading power companies were invited to participate in a session to explore what industry thinks universities should do to prepare their students for careers in the power industry. The Senior Vice President for Transmission at Duke Energy provided a clear and precise message. His company is looking for engineering graduates at the BS and Masters levels that have a strong knowledge in the fundamentals of power engineering. It is essential that in order to adapt to new technologies, meet ever increasing customer demands and solve the complexities of the interconnected electric systems, new engineers must have a very solid background in the basic fundamentals of how electrical systems are designed and operated. Other key factors are relevant work experience and a real desire and interest in working in the power industry.

In that same session, the Superintendent for System Protection and Control with Santee Cooper said that his company has a stated set of attributes they look for when recruiting students to work in their company. He called these attributes the Eight C’s:

Competence – basic fundamentals in power engineering

Character – there are 21 qualities but the top three are:              initiative, diligence and flexibility

Chemistry – ability to get along with others, work as a               team and respect others

Communication Skills – good listening, technical writing         skills and experience with public speaking

Computer Skills – experience with Microsoft Office products, networking, database, coding and cyber         security

Cost Control – economically compare alternative designs         and know how to develop a business case

Connections – connect theory with application, real life             experiences

Compliance – familiar with NERC Standards and       understands a mandatory compliance culture

The VP for Transmission at Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), in his talk, titled “Packing the Innovation Pipeline” said his company works with industry to solve problems of the day and looks into the future to prevent the problems of tomorrow. EPRI is about shaping the future and that requires the best minds, the best experiences and the best collaboration. Universities and industry are the agents that mold and prepare these people to fill that innovation pipeline. The speaker offered up his recipe for success in the Five U’s:

Understanding the fundamentals – real advancements come from people that have the underlying knowledge of the complexity of the electricity business. People are needed to develop and deliver solutions to a more dynamic energy system and only those with a firm grasp of the fundamentals will be in a position to do so.

Unrestricted ideas – industry needs students that are unburdened by past failures. Fresh perspectives breathe life into a project or problem.

Unbiased by traditional practices – experience, while one of our greatest advantages, can also be one of our greatest challenges. As people build experience, they build history. Within that history are failures that build up resistance. Over time that resistance becomes a limited factor. The industry needs people that are not limited by past failures.

Unbounded access to funding – across the industry there is much research taking place in Universities, organizations like EPRI and the DOE National Labs. Looking across the many industries it is clear that we are working on a number of the same things, stretching our limited research funds and reducing the impacts. Working together in collaboration is the best way to leverage limited resources and make the most of society’s R&D funds.

Unbridled passion – working in the power industry is not only a job, it is a mission. The industry needs people that love what they do. The challenge for Universities is to figure out how to push students through a demanding and rigorous curriculum without extinguishing the fire that brought them to their doors. It is that fire that moves us from average and makes us spectacular.

It is a challenging list but it is what is needed by industry. Organizations like EPRI are looking for people with the passion to make a difference that are well prepared in the fundamentals to make it happen.

The Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University published a series of Briefs titled Recruiting Trends 2017 – 18, 47th Edition [2]. Nearly 200 college and university career services assisted the Institute in obtaining participation from 3,500 employees. The surveys looked at recruiting efforts from a wide spectrum of industries and focused on what companies are looking for in new employees. Brief 2 focused on the hiring outlook by industry sector and geographic region. Employers tend to target specific universities and specific regions to fill their recruiting needs. As many as 60% of the companies surveyed recruit in the region close to their facilities, offices or headquarters while 32% recruit across the US. While ample opportunities exist, most industries are facing significant challenges in trying to fill their workforce requirements.

Many companies are finding that candidates lack the soft skills and relevant work experience they are looking for. Many lack the technical skills needed to be successful initially on the job. Many candidates are not overly interested in the particular job being offered. Employers experience candidates who accept positions in their company, but later come to realize that they are not interested in the type of positon and transfer or leave. These companies have invested much time and resources only to be faced with having to refill that position in a short period of time. To help with this particular problem, Brief 5 investigates how companies make use of Internships and Co-op Programs. Of the companies surveyed, 84% offer internships and 26% offered co-operative education programs (co-op).  Electric utilities rank as the highest industry sector in the use of summer internships. Of companies with greater than 7400 employees, 92% have internship and co-op student programs and 42% are increasing the size of their programs. Brief 5 also explored how industries best connect with students to build their candidate pools. Approximately 55% work directly with university career services to identify and connect with potential candidates through job postings, career fairs and on-campus interviews. Another good on-campus option is to engage with professional student organizations such as IEEE, ASCE and ASME. The only notable non-campus resource is employee and alumni referrals.

In summary, industry is rather clear on what attributes they look for in students to build their new employee candidate pools. They want students with sound fundamental technical knowledge, relevant work experience, good communication skills, interest and passion for the job, fresh new thinking and the ability to work together in teams. The challenge for Universities’ is to build the right curriculums, offer opportunities to develop the soft skills, provide interaction with industry and build a spirt of collaboration among students in order to prepare them for careers in power engineering.

                                                                                         III.   Creating the Perfect Power Engineering Curriculum

Creating the “perfect” Power Engineering Curriculum is no easy task. Many factors go into to determining the appropriate topics and mix of experiences to make up the needed educational background for future careers in power engineering. Much has to do with the resources of individual Universities, student demographics and needs of regional industry. The southeast is seeing a dramatic penetration of solar energy. An understanding of Power Electronics and Power Systems integration of renewables is critical for new employees in the power and energy field in the southeast. Students tend to seek their education regionally and wish to stay and work regionally, so what is happening in a particular region helps to drive interest in particular topics in power engineering.

Clemson University has one advantage: in the Junior year all ECE students are required to take ECE 3600 – Electric Power Engineering. It is in this course that all ECE students are introduced to the numerous topics within power engineering and many use that introduction to take electives in the field.

At NC State University, while there is not a power engineering course required of all ECE undergraduate students, students are encouraged to explore specialty areas starting in their junior year through two electives in the Foundation series. In senior year, students gain more depth in power through two electives in the Specialization series.

UNC Charlotte has a similar curriculum design in that there is no required power course for all EE students, but the Senior year offers an opportunity to take up to four electives that can come from the power and energy list of available courses. At the graduate level there are a number of course offerings in power engineering. A few years ago, UNC Charlotte and industry together founded the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) [3]. The center was founded to promote workforce development, economic development and applied research in energy. EPIC offers scholarships and undergraduate research assistantships. UNC Charlotte has taken full advantage of the two-semester Senior Design Project to offer their students real-world engineering design projects. They use multi-discipline teams mentored by Industry Advisors and coached by Power Faculty to stay focused on projects designed and sponsored by the power and energy industry.

An underlying theme that always became evident whether it was talking with university faculty, industry leaders and recent graduates, a sound and basic understanding of the fundamentals of power engineering must be an essential element in any power engineering curriculum. It is this foundation that more complex, more specialty and more current a topics are built.

                                                                                                    IV.   Challenges Imposed by ABET Accreditation

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology – simply called ABET, Inc. is comprised of member societies like IEEE, ASME, ASCE and AICHE whose main objective is to assure quality of educational programs and continuous improvement. Generally, programs are reviewed every six years. To be accredited for a full six years, programs must demonstrate attainment of criteria via assessment.

The importance of ABET accreditation [4] cannot be underestimated. Often, industry looks for ABET accreditation as a quality threshold when hiring new engineers. In addition, graduate school admission often requires a BS from ABET accredited program, or equivalent. It is also used to qualify for professional engineering licensure in the US. As of October 1, 2015, there were 3,569 programs accredited by A/BET at 714 colleges and universities in 29 countries.

Students must be prepared for engineering practice through a curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier course work and incorporating appropriate engineering standards and multiple realistic constraints [5].


V.   Challenges Imposed by University Research Requirements

The US has several different types of universities that serve the general population [6]. Among these are four year institutions that primarily focus on teaching and award either the Bachelor’s degree or both the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. There are also many institutions of higher learning that are active in both teaching and research, and award the doctoral degree in addition to the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. While both types of institutions produce graduates who are fully qualified to enter the workforce, faculty members at these two types of institutions have somewhat varying degrees of job description.

The culture for research at doctorate granting universities helps attract some of the best and brightest minds including both faculty and students from around the country and the world. It helps generate funds through externally sponsored programs to conduct high risk research that otherwise would not be possible. With total federal R&D funds approaching $50 billion allocated annually just for universities, they are happy to maintain vibrant research programs. This leads to the development of many unique research labs that are instrumental in leading scientific discoveries and in generating intellectual property rights or patents. Therefore, although research active faculty cannot always devote themselves to full-time teaching, many will offer research positions to undergraduate students, who then go on to experience world class research.

The question many parents ask is whether professors at large research intensive universities have the time to mentor undergraduate students effectively. This is a legitimate question to ask, of course. In fact, there are professors who become so engrossed in their research that they have elected to “buy out” of teaching courses. But because of the fact that most public or private doctoral granting institutions have a large diverse faculty, there are many professors who also like to teach. Some of the most research active professors tend to be  effective instructors in the classroom because of the wealth of information they can bring from the research field.

All in all, the requirement for faculty research at universities is not necessarily an impediment for undergraduate education. It may depend; however, on the faculty and student body size, as well as how diverse the faculty is from the perspective of job descriptions.


VI.   Attracting US Domestic Students into Power (Challenges and Strategies)

There has been a concerted effort within the past decade to attract undergraduate students to power by higher education intuitions with power programs [7-9]. Recent awareness on the impact of fossil fuel based energy on climate, and the emergence of renewable technologies have helped to attract more students into the power at both undergraduate and graduate levels [10]. Three CAPER partner universities have also made considerable effort in this regard.

FREEDM Systems Center at NC State [11] has developed targeted programs to a large range of constituencies from K-12, undergraduate, graduate, and short courses and tutorials for working professionals. The main programs are the following:

  • • Renewable Electric Energy Systems (REES) was introduced into the ECE curriculum in 2009. The main goal of the concentration is to provide a cohesive and coordinated context in renewable energy based electric power generation.
  • • Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) is a 10 week summer immersion program for undergraduates majoring in engineering fields that offers an opportunity to conduct research and present their work.
  • • Research Experience for Teachers (RET) aims at advancing the inclusion of engineering concepts in pre-college classrooms through involvement of teachers and students. Teachers develop lessons for their own classrooms and receive materials to teach the lessons.
  • •   MS-EPSE is a graduate program to provide a comprehensive education on power engineering. To help attract US students, scholarships from industry have been secured.

At Clemson, there is a center dedicated to attracting undergraduate students to power, CUEPRA [12]. Activities include the following:

  • Offer opportunities to undergraduate to get involved in sponsored research
  • Invite local high schools to visit to the University
  • Invite undergraduates to organized tours: GE, Santee Cooper, SCE&G, CURI, EATON and Duke Energy
  • Encourage power faculty to sponsor undergraduate honor projects in power engineering.

At UNC Charlotte, there are a number of initiatives that are helping attract domestic students to power engineering at UNC Charlotte. These include:

  • Power & Energy Concentration Program: A new undergraduate concentration program in Power and Energy has been introduced into the ECE curriculum in 2012. Students are asked to take an electromechanical energy conversion course, followed by an introductory power systems course. In addition, they have to take two additional technical electives at the senior level, which could be in one of more specific tracks, like machines and drives, power electronics, and power systems. Students must also undertake a senior design project in the power and energy area.
  • Research for undergraduates: The Energy Production & Infrastructure Center at UNC Charlotte has allocated funds to attract four to six undergraduate students to pursue two-semester long research projects with power faculty.
  • Internships and Coops: UNC Charlotte has strong ties with the local power industry. Every semester, a large number of students are hired by companies in the Charlotte area to spend a summer or rotating semesters as a co-op to work on projects that can generate strong interest among the students to pursue a career in the power area.


VII.   Involving Industry in the Education Process

The power industry is finding that fresh out of school, engineering employees lack an adequate power engineering background with an industry perspective as well as the soft skills and relevant work experience they are seeking. In order to address these issues, the following approach and topics are recommended:

  • Industry perspectives in senior courses

Universities with established power programs, are requiring their junior students to take a compulsory power course where the basic principles of power engineering, electrical machines and power electronics are offered to students. This course is very important to lay the foundations of an industry focused career. Technical visits to utility and manufacturing facilities are making classwork more industry relevant. Linking an experimental lab class, where students experience hands-on experiments on the fundamentals of power engineering, will embrace the power fundamentals.

In the senior level elective classes of power system analysis, protection, drives and power electronics, renewable energy, should emphasize industry relevance even more. Some of the successful approaches have the following aspects:

  • Using industry adjunct faculty members in senior power courses.
  • Adding team and project-based assignments to senior level classes, based on real industry problems and models.
  • Developing business cases and addressing policy and regulatory aspects of their projects.
  • Using industry accepted tools for modeling and analysis in course assignments and projects makes students immediately productive once hired.
  • Industry-funded multi-disciplinary senior design projects for all students.

Senior Design Projects are a key component in developing students into productive employees. The importance of industry funded projects help students experience real industry relevant problems, solutions, project management and financial responsibility.

•   Co-op and Internship Programs

Several studies have shown the importance of undergraduate co-op and internship programs to prepare students for the workplace. As stated earlier in the Michigan State University study, electric utilities rank as the highest industry sector in the use of summer internships. Student programs such as internships and co-op rotations help both the employer and the student fine the right fit in addition to providing opportunities for development assignments while still in school.

•   Integrated BS-MS Program

Most engineering undergraduate curricula are very full and it is difficult to prepare power engineering students well for a productive career in the power industry. With most students doing Advanced Placement courses at high school, they should plan to do an integrated BS-MS program and leave the university after five years with both BS and MS degrees. Most university have early placement MS programs where undergraduates can get credit for both undergraduate and MS classes while completing their undergraduate studies.


VIII.   University Power Curriculum – Students’ Perspective

At the 2017 Fall 2017 meeting, the CAPER center sponsored a session – University Power Curriculum – Student Perspective. In this session we heard from three students, two recently graduated, and one electing to continue in graduate school.  They shared their experiences and elaborated on what was good about their specific power program and where they saw gaps.

One former student, who received her bachelor’s degree at UNC Charlotte with a concentration in power and energy systems, is now employed at Duke Energy. She felt well prepared for her present career, but her many extra-curricular activities, such as internships, undergraduate research experiences, and power-related student organizations, as well as Senior Design, provided her primary preparation. She credits her university for promoting these extra-curricular opportunities: connections to internships through industry seminars and engineering job fairs, opportunities for undergraduate research, support for her student organization through funding, mentorship, and spaces for storage and events, and encouraging industry partnerships for senior design projects. She also credits her university for well-taught fundamentals courses that taught critical thinking and analysis of the results of analysis software – essential skills for the modern power engineer. However, the courses lacked specific instruction on technical writing and emphasis on the importance of the FE and PE exams, which are also important fundamentals for a successful career in energy. The courses also lacked representation of power-related majors and careers, which would be very beneficial to increasing student interest in power. However, when she entered the power-specific curriculum, she appreciated the dedicated power engineering professors who brought their real-world knowledge to the classroom and applied it to holistic, realistic design challenges in the university’s well-equipped power laboratories. She stated that an introduction to common codes and standards, and more emphasis on the challenges and growth the power industry is experiencing (rather than a singular focus on power fundamentals such as system analysis), would be helpful additions to these classes. She ended by reinforcing the importance of the programs most contributed to her preparedness to begin her career in power engineering: internships, research, student organizations, and especially her industry sponsored Senior Design project.

Another former student, who received his Master’s degree with a focus in power engineering at Clemson University, currently works at Savannah River National Lab.  He became interested in power after having completed the required undergraduate course ECE 3600 Electric Power Engineering. He went on the take as many electives in power as possible and decided to pursue a master’s degree in order to take more coursework in the field. Especially helpful for him was the CUEPRA program and highly active IEEE PES Student Chapter. Graduate school provided a better connection between theoretical and application and a better connection on how to apply information learning. Industry involvement in his thesis work was especially rewarding. The former student felt well-prepared to begin his career in power engineering and is now pursuing a PhD in power engineering at Clemson.

A third student, received both the undergraduate and Master’s degrees in power from NC State, and is staying on to complete her PhD in the field. Her inspiration has always been renewable energy. NC State did a good job of advertising their Renewable Electric Energy Systems (REES) concentration for students who were interested in making a difference in the area of renewable energy. She enrolled in all the courses to complete the REES concentration but wanted more from her education. After completing her undergraduate studies, she was comfortable with the math, but studies at the Masters level better introduced her to physical concepts of three-phase transformers and distribution circuit models vs classroom equivalent circuits and single-phase circuit analysis.  At the undergraduate level, she knew math and circuits, but at the Masters level, she learned design. She offered several suggestions on how to improve a power curriculum: introduce the interconnected grid and how it works, discuss problems facing the power industry and what skills are needed to solve them, discuss various jobs opportunities in the field and include field trips to study actual installations. She expressed that the classroom was really important to her. Confusing notes, unclear assumptions and discouraging complex homework made some classes uncomfortable. Critical thinking is important but nearly impossible if one does not have a firm and rooted understanding of the fundamentals. The better teachers offer clear, error-free notes with thoroughly worked out problems. Examples are worked out on the board in real time. Homework is a mix between theory and application. The classroom needs to be that place that is interesting, engaging and nurturing to create the passion for power engineering. The classroom provides the motivation that you can’t get from reading a text book.

Providing that connection between coursework and future careers in power engineering happens in the classroom.


IX. Conclusion

Throughout the series of sessions presented at CAPER meetings, we heard from industry, academia and students on their views of what makes up and how to best deliver a power engineering education that effectively prepares students to begin their new careers. It begins at the University level with the undergraduate degree, and may continue through graduate degrees. Industry must take an active role in the process by providing tours, special topic classroom seminars, relevant work experience, and research support. Professional organizations such as IEEE and PES Student Chapters offer networking opportunities and relevant topics of the industry. Students must generate the interest, take the initiative, be willing to work hard to build that passion for power engineering.

Universities that are torn between research and teaching must establish a balance and get back to the basics. They must offer the right courses, provides labs for that “hands on” experiences, build excitement in the classroom. Research can actually bring much benefit to the classroom when is meaningful and applicable. Education does not end at graduation. Universities can continue the process by offering developmental short courses, online courses, special topic courses and PE review courses.

Industry too has an important role in the education of future power engineers. Industry must be involved by providing guest lectures, seminar series and participation in PES Student Chapters. Industry needs to support applied research by providing financial support, providing real data for projects and serving as Industry Advisors to projects and Senior Design Projects. Power engineers in the industry need to be involved in the recruiting process by attending Career Fairs, interviewing students and serving as mentors to students that are working as co-ops and interns.

Students must be willing to take fundamental courses to learn the basics. They must enroll into as many electives in the field as possible and pursue advance degrees if desired. Relevant work experience is crucial today to land that first job. Co-op rotations, internships and even part-time employment are great ways to gain that relevant work experience.

Even though the center members comprise of three southeastern US universities, the lessons learned from these efforts can be equally applied to any university education. It is clear that power engineering is a partnership. The stakeholders: universities, industry and students, each have specific roles that must be actively engaged and coordinated together and in the overall process to in order to provide the depth and breadth of education a student needs today to successfully enter the exciting and challenging field of power engineering.


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[3]     The Energy Production & Infrastructure Center (EPIC),

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[12].  CUEPRA: