Rising to meet workforce shortage in power engineering

“Building a Robust Workforce in Electric Power Engineering,” a workshop conducted by the University of Minnesota in partnership with the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA) recently concluded in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and co-sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the workshop addressed the critical task of building a robust workforce in electric power engineering given the rapidly expanding needs in the clean energy and power industry. Attendees at the workshop included professors, engineers, educators, utility vendors, executives, and representatives from the National Science foundation, United States Department of Energy, and United States Department of Defense. 

A critical challenge that has accompanied the evolution and expansion of the electric power grid is the rapidly diminishing workforce in the energy sector, a reflection of the sharp decline in enrollment in departments of electrical engineering and electrical and computer engineering across the nation.

University of Minnesota Regents Professor Ned Mohan has been instrumental in grappling with the challenge and exploring solutions. He emphasizes the urgency of the situation: “We need hundreds of thousands of power engineers in the next five to ten years even as the enrollment in power-related courses in colleges and universities are sharply declining nationwide.”

Engaging community and community colleges

The workshop opened with NSF Program Director and North Carolina State University Professor Aranya Chakrabortty and retired Captain Lynn J. Petersen of the Office of Naval Research who emphasized the critical role of power engineers in the nation’s safety and outlined funding opportunities for research, education, and workforce training. Senior scientist Stan Atcitty of Sandia National Laboratory while highlighting the reality of communities in the United States that still exist without electricity shared details of successful programs he has led that have enabled energy sovereignty for tribal communities. Atcitty and Professors Pramod Khargonekar (University of California, Irvine) and Ahmed Rubaai (Howard University) reiterated the need to market the electrical engineering major in ways that appeal to high school students and their parents, and underline the critical role of the major in developing solutions that address climate change. 

Joan Carter, Ph.D., (faculty at Inver Hills Community College) spoke about the role of community colleges in creating a diverse workforce by offering engineering education that is more affordable than four-year colleges. Matthew Brown (faculty at Richfield High School) highlighted the importance of reaching out to high school students. Both speakers emphasized the role of high school students in addressing the dual challenges of the climate crisis and diminishing qualified workforce.  

International perspectives

Some of the speakers offered international perspectives on the workforce issue. Professor Osama Mohammed of Florida International University shared some unique approaches being tested by the El Hussain Technical University in Jordan including a bachelor’s degree curriculum that has multiple exit points with titled degrees at each point, a bachelor’s degree program with multiple career specific pathways, and condensed coursework for practicing engineers and technicians. Professor James Momoh (member, National Academy of Engineering) of Howard University presented the Nigerian government’s efforts to retain talent that is leaving the country and particularly impacting the power sector. Professor G. Bhuvaneshwari of Mahindra University in India described how the country is seeing a boom in enrollment in computer science while other areas of engineering are struggling. The National Education Policy in India has proposed new approaches that include multiple exit points in undergraduate programs and two year degree programs similar to community college programs in the United States. 

Proposed solutions 

Professor Siddharth Raju from ECE presented an approach for democratizing technical education and expanding the power engineering workforce. The three-pronged approach involves setting up courses and labs that can be taught in high schools, offering a three semester-long course for a program titled Electric Power Engineering Certificate through community colleges, and making graduate-level courses available through the Consortium of Universities for Sustainable Power (CUSP). The certificate program is designed to place students directly in the power industry after 2 1/2 years, combining a community college two-year associate’s degree with the certification. 

The panel discussion underlined the importance of providing clear incentives for students regarding course outcomes, opportunities, and benefits. Panelists also emphasized the importance of university buy-in (acceptance of community college credits), industry buy-in (acceptance of associate’s degrees and power engineering certificates), and increasing the interaction between students and industry to improve the former’s awareness of opportunities and career pathways. 

The second day of the workshop focused on classroom experiences, tools, and programs. Professor Brandon Grainger (University of Pittsburgh) emphasized the importance of hands-on learning experiences, and J.R. Jamora of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) highlighted the AFRL-funded internship program at Wright State University. Retired Captain Norbert Doerry and Commander Sheila Sklerov of the Naval Research Laboratory shared details of their efforts to document knowledge acquired by naval engineers in the specialty area of naval shipboard power systems. Ryan Barlow of zyBooks held a demonstration and solicited feedback from workshop attendees who have integrated zyBooks in their course curriculum. The workshop ended with the University contingent (doctoral candidate David Maiden Mueller, Swaroop Guggilam, Ph.D., Madhukar Rao Airineni, Ph.D., and Professor Siddharth Raju) presenting their work developing course materials and hardware labs. 

Next steps

The proposed goal is to create an ecosystem that  consists of a consortium with multiple centers each led by a US University that is open-source and sustained by the participation of national labs, utilities, and industry entities. The nearly two-hundred universities across the United States offering electric power programs will be encouraged to reach out to local community and technical colleges (there are over 1000 nationwide with over 12 million students), and high schools. Such outreach combined with the measures presented at the workshop will help expand access to technical education for tribal and rural communities as well as historically and systemically marginalized communities who are otherwise priced out of traditional technical education options. Setting it up online, away from traditional classrooms, will also expand access to individuals with disabilities. 

With funding from the Office of Naval Research the University of Minnesota has developed a large number of graduate courses supported by extremely low-cost hardware laboratories, free-to-use software, and textbooks published through Wiley. All teaching materials for the courses are available at the CUSP portal free of charge. The University is working on measures by which these courses can be part of college and university curricula across the country.