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Brain Drain Problem More Serious

Issue 2 and Volume 106.

Your “Brain Drain” editorial in the November issue begins by declaring that Power Engineering doesn’t give a large amount of space to people in the power generation industry. Perhaps not, but the real problem is that the power generation industry has been busy for a decade proving that it cares nothing for its people.

You go on to state correctly that “we’re going to have to find and equip the next generation of engineers” and others to make the industry “a rewarding career.”

Great idea. Where were its proponents during the late 1980s and the 1990s, when the electric power industry eliminated tens of thousands of jobs in an almost frantic effort to downsize? A great many experienced engineers and others – of all ages, by the way – were eliminated. Half a million electric utility jobs in 1990 had shrunk to 380,000 by 1996.

That was no pruning of deadwood; I was there, and I know. In one 1,500 MW power plant, a staff of 17 engineers was reduced to one person who spent half his time at another location. According to one 45-year veteran of the business, the utility industry was rapidly “getting rid of the very people who ensure a healthy, burgeoning industry.” Your editorial implies that the only concern is departure of the old-timers who die or retire. Far from it.

Young engineers of today (whether or not they find a scholarship) are not going to be interested in a dead-end industry that has demonstrated no interest in them. They are smart enough to know that once the project is done, once work slacks off, they will be considered as expendable as yesterday’s newspaper. Establishing a scholarship at one small school will hardly change either that perception or the reality of ruthless layoffs behind it.

Until the electric utility industry and its suppliers adopt some concept of loyalty to their employees, they will continue to have to whine about the “shortage” your editorial bemoans.

Yes, your next-to-last-paragraph does recognize the emptiness of the phrase “employees are our most valuable asset.” But it’s not capital investment that’s needed; it’s a willingness to retain technical personnel while the workload is light, so that those people will be there when the need is greater. Remember the ant who, unlike the grasshopper, was willing to sacrifice a little by storing up necessities for the hard winter.

R.L. Nailen, P.E.
Hales Corner, Wisc.