Colleges Training New Generation of Substation Workers
The new engineering technology lab at Lake-Sumter State College is full of the kind of equipment that assures the lights go on when you flip that switch: protective relays, communication processors and equipment, battery systems, substation devices, metering and testing gear.
The lab forms the bedrock of the college’s newest academic program: an associate of science degree in engineering technology with a relay/substation tech specialization. The program is aimed at training some of the most valued and specialized people who keep the nation’s electrical grid up and running: protective relay technicians, substation electricians, field service engineers.
“They really are the backbone of the electrical grid,” said Dave Zabetakis, president of Doble Engineering, whose company recently donated $100,000 in test equipment to the college. “We rely on these individuals in the field to keep the power grid up and running.
Plenty of community colleges across the country have forged partnerships with utility companies to train utility lineman, the hard-hatted workers who climb up 30- foot-tall utility poles and repair and maintain electric lines in all kinds of weather.
FirstEnergy’s Power Systems Institute, for example, started about 15 years ago and works with technical schools and community colleges to give graduates job skills and provide utility companies with a reliable pool of talent. Most of the colleges offer an associate degree in electrical utility technology.
But Lake Sumter is just one of two community colleges in the country to offer the relay-substation specialty. The other is Richmond Community College in Hamlet, N.C., which started a relay-substation associate specialty degree in 2014.
Lake-Sumter welcomed its first class last fall, said Robert Seigworth, the program’s director. It is made up of 21 students, including 18 men and three women. They range in age from 19 to 52.
“We have students who are right out of high school and are interested in a career,” said Seigworth. “We have others who are looking to change careers.”
Seigworth took the job at LSSC after retiring from Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility. He worked there for 37 years and is eager to pass along the knowledge he accrued over his long career.
The students who emerge from the program won’t be utility linemen, though they are part of the same team. They work with the same high voltage, but without the height. The chief tool of LSSC’s program graduates is apt to be a laptop instead of a wrench. Their job will be to install and maintain relay and control equipment at electric substations.
Seigworth said the goal of the program is to provide students with both the academic background and hands-on experience so they can integrate the knowledge and skills that the electrical power utility industry needs. Graduates will learn to install, inspect, test, repair and maintain electrical equipment in substations and other smart grid equipment on the power grid.
Substation technicians work with electrical engineers to design, construct and maintain substations. Substations are critical to transmission of electrical power. The facilities collect power from a generation site, connect to a transmission grid and download energy to a distribution network where the power is delivered to the consumer. Graduates can find jobs working outdoors at a substation or performing maintenance on the grid system housed inside a utilities service facility. In Florida, the average annual starting salary for such jobs is $45,000.
Students need a strong background in math and science, Zabetakis said, and must be comfortable with new and emerging technologies. His company works with the electric power industry to improve operations and system performance through diagnostic instruments and services.
“They really need a strong foundation in math and science,” he said. “They need to take the theory of what they are doing and apply it in the field. The link between theory and practice is crucial. We want them to be able to work hands-on.”
Students at LSSC divide their time between the classroom, where they take classes like physics and algebra, and the engineering lab, where they work on high voltage transformers and circuit breakers. Of the 21 students enrolled in the classes, 14 have externships this summer where they can get practical experience and build their job skills.
“It is really critical to be able to work on the equipment,” Seigworth said. “The protective relay field is very specialized. Part of the reason for the demand in jobs is it’s so specialized.”
Another reason is the inexorable march of demographics. Like many other industries, electric utilities are facing a mass exodus of longtime employees and institutional knowledge as baby boomers reach retirement age.
According to Power Engineering magazine, the power sector will need more than 100,000 new skilled workers by 2018 to replace retiring workers. The U.S. Labor Department reports that as much as 50 percent of the nation’s utility workforce will retire within the next decade. Attracting and developing new talent has become an industry imperative.
According to the Center for Energy Workforce Development, a nonprofit consortium of electric utilities and associations:
Almost 62 percent of utility employees have the potential to retire or leave over the next decade; Nine percent are “ready to retire now” based on current retirement assumptions; By 2020, 52 percent of employees in positions that the industry deems as critical may retire or leave for other reasons.
The workforce problem is second only to the challenge of the industry’s aging infrastructure, according to a national survey of 433 electric utility executives released by UtilityDrive, a provider of industry news and analysis. It scored ahead of issues such as the current regulatory structure, stagnant load growth, federal emissions standards, coal plant retirements and grid cybersecurity.
Zabetakis said he sees the worker shortage first-hand.
“When you look at the aging workforce, the demand for this skill set is growing,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for students to step into a very dynamic industry.”
“The industry is hitting a perfect storm. The workforce is aging. We also have an aging infrastructure. We will have no choice but to go into a more automated system. Every utility is struggling to get these kinds of skill sets into the workforce. We have to fight for every member of the workforce we can get. We can’t succeed without these kinds of partnerships.”
LSSC has received inquiries about the program and is already considering expanding the program. Its first iteration was a single two-year cohort, Seigworth said. It is now contemplating adding a new cohort every year.
“Making the grid more reliable is driving all these changes,” he said. “That’s what the customer expects. That’s what they pay for.