Workforce Spectrum from Aging to Gen Z

With a huge wave of retirements and on-boarding of new entrants, the Hydropower Foundation in the U.S. is looking at what it takes to support recruitment and retention and programs to support knowledge transfer.

Encounters among hydro personnel at HydroVision International resemble a family reunion.

Encounters among hydro personnel at HydroVision International resemble a family reunion.

It is the first day of HydroVision International. As all of the conference delegates seem to do, everyone feverishly looks at name badges instead of faces to find their friends. It is an old habit. Luckily, the name badge habit only lasts for about an hour and friends start looking at faces – it is a family reunion of sorts. For the newcomer, this can be overwhelming for the first day, but luckily hydro is the language of choice, the family is friendly, and the newbie will be quickly absorbed by the family. I have been the newbie and now this is my family.

Over the past five years in the hydro industry, it has been a rollercoaster of retirements followed by introductions. One of my hobbies in the early days was to count bald and grey heads. I will tell you the number of gray and bald heads is dropping quickly, but that leaves some big questions: Where is all of this knowledge going? Did they leave quickly or did they train their replacement? Are they coming back to consult? My favorite is my thought, “Oh my, that is their replacement? I could be their mother!”

Filling the shoes

I take heart in knowing that the hydropower industry in the U.S. has rallied together lots of great programs and support for this generational shift. The first foray into this was the Fellowship Program, which funded graduate-level researchers to conduct relevant research and then helped them find a spot in hydro.

This program was so successful it grew into the Research Awards Program. These U.S. Department of Energy-funded projects collectively provided money for nearly 80 researchers to conduct relevant and helpful investigations for our industry. Be sure to check the findings out at What is more, over 75% of these students joined the industry! They are now the new-becoming-familiar faces at HydroVision International, so please welcome them into your conversation and learn from one another.

It was great to see this program launch and address some of the workforce needs for topnotch scientists and engineers. The next step was getting vocational and trade students connected to the industry. The Hydropower Foundation (formerly the Hydro Research Foundation) interviewed dozens of hydropower organizations and chose to develop the Hiring for Hydro program, which brings these highly valued, and very much needed, students to the industry through a one-day event. Students attend great workshops on hydro basics, current issues in hydroelectric power, and job readiness skill-building, which all lead to a recruiting fair.

This year, the Hydropower Foundation awarded two merit awards to students who are just extraordinary: Kyle Pritchard and Shannon Kellam. Kyle is from Walla Walla Community College in Washington and is working toward a degree in energy systems technology, and Shannon is from Eastern Washington University and is studying mechanical engineering. These students and their colleagues will make great new hydro employees.

Collectively, more than 150 students attended the first three events. The next Hiring for Hydro event is at HydroVision International, June 26 to 28 in Charlotte, N.C., U.S. The events are aimed at electrical students, machinists, welders, plant operators and vocations related to the powerhouse. It is astounding to see program partners like PennWell Corp. and the Northwest Hydroelectric Association rally behind these efforts and help bring these students into the fold.

A new focus

These events are wonderful and attract a great set of entrants to our sphere, but … what about undergraduate students? I was an undergrad once, and I remember how hard it was to be shiny and new while looking completely full of experience for an entry level job! I bet many of my readers can remember this too. I was lamenting with Kenneth Odom, principal engineer at Southern Company, about the challenges for these students, and Kenneth was sharing how it would be great to have students come solve some of his challenges. Voila! A program was born. A few short months later (a land-speed record in hydro time frames), the Hydro Think Tank emerged.

The Hydro Think Tank brings together bright new workforce entrants to solve real-world problems with a partner utility. The week-long research and educational forum addresses the needs of Southern Company by introducing a specific hydropower issue to have students solve. 

This seminar is designed to help develop a sense of an engineer’s business by working within a team environment while trying to solve a real-world problem. In this program, developed to mirror Shark Tank, student teams from several university programs will be invited to participate in a problem-solving forum to develop and propose a solution to a plant problem. This is an innovative way to get students excited about hydro, give them some experience that really shines on a resume and provide them access to careers in hydro! This program can be hosted at any utility, consulting firm, governmental agency or manufacturer and brings a tailored set of students right to the door of the hosting organization.

This first Hydro Think Tank, held at Southern Company’s Logan Martin Dam in May, involved 12 undergraduate students from the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa, Auburn University and Sanford University. An intense week of hands-on problem solving took place, with the goal of providing their best solution to a pressing dissolved oxygen problem for Southern Company. The students were put in teams of four, with students from different universities in each group, and each team was competing for the grand cash prize of $500 per student.

“The Hydro Think Tank was a great opportunity for college students in STEM majors to apply their knowledge to a real-world challenge,” said Lisa Martindale, river manager for the lower Coosa river system at Alabama Power, a part of Southern Company. “I was able to observe the group go from individuals to cohesive teams that not only met but exceeded their objectives. I am already looking forward to doing this again!”

Students who participated were surveyed at week’s end and they unanimously responded that they were 100% more likely to pursue a career in hydropower after participating in the Hydro Think Tank and they were 100% more likely to refer their friends to participate in the next Hydro Think Tank.

Knowledge transfer

I often get asked, “How early do we need to start teaching kids about hydro?” My opinion is, as early as they can turn on a light switch. The Foundation for Water & Energy Education provides amazing class projects to schools in the Pacific Northwest. They have some great exposure visits to dams, a summer camp and resources for teachers. I also recently came across the PowerWheel, which is a nifty classroom kit to demonstrate hydropower. It even comes with a connector to charge a student’s phone.

These are the programs and tools that show students what hydro really does, beyond just the dam, and how it underpins so much of all types of renewable energy. If students don’t hear about hydro and only hear about other renewables, it doesn’t help hydro get new entrants when they seek careers a few years from now. I encourage folks to get involved in their local schools and bring hydro to the classrooms in their community.

As we look at knowledge transfer while saying goodbye to our colleagues and friends of many decades, we have a few challenges. The subject matter experts contribute so much to our industry, and we need to give them many mechanisms to stay connected with the hydropower industry and share knowledge and mentor the millennials and Gen Z workers.

A few knowledge-sharing spaces that I think are terrific are the National Hydropower Association’s OpEx (Operational Excellence) program, where active employees share incidents to help others avoid the same problems. That is a meaningful way to share experiences and keep current. It is also encouraging to see the International Hydropower Association develop its knowledge networks initiative. Hopefully, this becomes a tool that can be widely accessible to non-members. Another positive example is the International Generator Technical Community. This is a free-to-join spot where all things generators are covered. It is a great space for plant equipment knowledge for this sector. I’m glad to see these spaces increasing in number and scope!

What we hear often around the foundation is that those who retire don’t want to work full-time, but they want to help still. Gregg Carrington with Chelan County Public Utility District heard this call loud and clear from his peers and asked the Hydropower Foundation to take a look at this need and create the connecting point for experts to make themselves available for specific consulting needs of the industry.

The Hydropower Foundation’s new Hydro Expert Connection emerged to fill this need. This space is the online go-to spot where those who are leaving their professional careers can raise their hands to join forces with the new entrants and colleagues to continue to share knowledge. I encourage you to raise your hand and put your information on the site so we can build a web of knowledge to catch those who are just now joining us at HydroVision International.

Leaving a legacy

I read a quote that rings true as a mom of three small kids: “Maybe I wanted to have kids because you want to leave behind lessons, leave behind everything that matters to you. That is how you touch the world. But I have to reconsider what it’s like to leave a legacy.”- Mattie Sepanek.

What struck me is the idea of leaving a legacy. As I talk to those who are leaving the hydro ranks, they want to know their lifelong work mattered – that they built something greater than the sum of all of the parts. I was honored to have a small hand in building a legacy for our dear friend Julie Keil and the memorial fund that is now in her honor. To have the first awards in 2018, which will be presented at HydroVision International, shows me that we all want to, and can, leave a legacy.

I hope you will read this article and decide to leave a legacy in hydro. Make a scholarship to these young folks to explore STEM and hydro. Support the programs that do so much to generate hydropower’s future. Make a legacy gift to hydro through the Hydropower Foundation.

Have a dinnertime conversation with friends about your view. Shout from the mountaintops how proud you are to call this your family and your industry. Believe me, our neighbors love it when I shout from the top of our hill!

Brenna Vaughn is managing director of the Hydropower Foundation (formerly Hydro Research Foundation), which created and led the successful Fellowship and Research Awards Program and has created, and is now implementing, Hiring for Hydro events to attract new entrants.


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