Editor’s Note: My September “Editor’s Remarks” about repeating history seemed to strike a cord with several readers. I received several interesting and thought-provoking responses from e-newsletter subscribers that I think are worth sharing.
Immigrants Can Fill the Gap
Your “Repeating History” editorial in the Power Engineering e-newsletter was both interesting and thought-provoking. It did, though, omit one important point. One of the most important sources of engineering talent we’ve relied upon to close the gap you described has been from a worldwide pool of bright, well-educated immigrants. Not only born but frequently trained elsewhere, they came to this country seeking opportunity — and have played an indispensable role in keeping our society’s highly complex systems functioning.
In recent years, our nation’s increasingly stringent and even hostile immigration policies have made it much more difficult to tap this source of talent. Many foreign-born engineers have found that, as barriers rise here, opportunity and personal aspirations beckon them home or to other global regions. We risk losing our reputation as the land of opportunity; today’s newspapers and journals are full of stories of reverse migrations.
You are right to highlight the mounting crisis of human talent in our nation’s power industry. I urge you to keep the focus on this problem and the need for better domestic training of engineers, as well as policies that will allow us to welcome foreign-born engineers with needed skills. We must not become complacent and assume that because we’ve dodged this problem before, we will likewise avoid it in the future.
Mentoring Can Make a Difference
Good editorial on the engineering shortage. We have noticed a lack of engineering talent in the design-build and energy engineering group of mechanical engineers. What I have found effective is to hire part-time students from the local college and then convince them to expand their vision of their own expectations. In the past five years, we have hired four mechanical engineering or engineering technology students. Two of them have now passed their professional engineering examinations in California with another testing in October. None of the four had any desire to become registered professional engineers. Through mentoring them and having frequent “lunch and learns” in our office they have all caught the vision of their own capability as being nearly unlimited. Sure this takes time and sure it is expensive. However, it is very rewarding when they pass their exam and get their notification in the mail because the first person they call is their mentor. Only two of the four still work here, but they lovingly recall the time spent at “Aircon University.” The only requirement I have imposed upon them is that they do the same for other students as they take on the mantle of the licensed engineer. Both have agreed.
If each engineer in the country would see that they mentor four to five people during their careers, the results would be staggering.
Keep up the good work.
D. Allen Crosby, P.E.
Let’s Get Back to the Scientific Basics
Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your “Repeating History” story in today’s Power Engineering e-newsletter. It raised a question about how we were actually able to overcome the shortfall of technically trained people that was portrayed in 1951. I’ve got one idea, but there are probably many others.
As a middle-of-the-pack Baby Boomer, I was fortunate to enter kindergarten in 1958, a.k.a. the International Geophysical Year, a time of intense basic scientific study. It also happened to be a year after our nation’s leaders were shocked by the successful launch of Sputnik (which demonstrated the possibility of orbital nuclear weapons).
From my own personal viewpoint, it just seemed that concentrating on math and science was a natural part of our public school system. I didn’t realize until years later that this focus might have been an anomaly caused by our entry into the Space Race. Sure seemed to do the trick – at least for a decade or so. My kids were born in 1986 and 1990, and when they were old enough to talk, both of them asked me why we didn’t go to the Moon anymore. That was a difficult one to answer.
I’m wondering if some kind of massive energy crisis might eventually have a galvanizing effect on our collective public will, resulting in renewed emphasis on basic science in the USA. Of course, with MBAs running more and more of our corporations, we might end up simply outsourcing all of our engineering and technical support needs to other countries (such as India and China) who are willing to step up and do it – for a lower price than our own citizens.
Complicated questions, but worth asking.
Gary B. Swift, P.E.
I read and reflected on your article. My thoughts are as follows:
Your article struck a cord in that it quantifies what many of us have been saying for years. The question is why are so few people going into the sciences and why is the turn over in the power industry so large? I believe one of the reasons is that most people take the path of least resistance.
Science and engineering curricula are hard and the financial remunerations are not as great as other career paths such as computers, finance, management, business, etc. The other reason is that the technical employees in the power industry end up working for the straight line thinkers who seem to believe that if they do not understand the subject then it cannot be very important; worse than those managers are those that are so impressed with their ability to use spreadsheets that the bottom line is the only thing that matters.
These young (22 to 40 year old) science/engineering majors also seem reticent to inform the decision makers with what they need to know rather than what they want to hear. This reticence to speak likely comes from a lack of mentoring of technical staffs by those experienced in the art/science of power production, which is due to the technical generation gap created by the down sizing of utility staffs that took place between 1988 and 2000.
From discussions with many of these younger technical professionals, I’ve learned their reasons for leaving the power industry are diverse but seem to boil down to too much responsibility combined with a lack of respect for their contributions, lack of knowledge-based training by experienced personnel, too many hours and reporting to “managers” who are too busy filling in the cells on spreadsheets and calculating their bonuses.
If companies want to retain technical personnel then they have to start asking better questions. If they ask balanced questions and do not have their conclusions firmly in place before asking then the answers will simply appear and the solutions will be lasting.
Phil D’Angelo, Technical Consultant
Highlight the Opportunities
Just a thought, until someone rings the alarm and raises the level of awareness, the problem won’t get addressed in a serious fashion. Right now the luster of engineering seems to be wearing off because of the media emphasis on outsourcing. Maybe the level of awareness should be raised with regard to opportunities that can’t be moved offshore such as operation of plants of all kinds within our borders.
Larry Abrams, Engineer
Pay Them What They’re Worth
I worked in the power industry for 27 years and am still employed as an engineer in a different business sector. Your article, at least the message it contains, is not new as you discovered. The United States needs to decide what it wants. If it wants a highly trained domestic work force, it needs to offer salaries to attract the best and brightest. Otherwise, global economy will dictate that we do indeed lose our domestic expertise. Academia wants more engineers to enter colleges and universities to feed their supply chain and industry wants more engineers to design their products and services. When the demand is not met, salaries will rise or we will indeed look to other nations. It’s the global economy thing!
Ron Adams, Engineer