Career Stuck in Neutral? Time For Action

Aug. 13, 2012
We received a lot of interest in our utility professional poll. The results fit with what I know about most utility engineers. We like technology and we want to make a difference. We don't do well when we lose our sense of professional worth and purpose.

We received a lot of interest in our reader poll: Utility professionals, is your salary still worth the hassle? Less than half of the respondents said they liked their job. About 20 percent said they were ready to quit. Another 20 percent said they were under too much time pressure - no surprise since companies are replacing only about half of the 40 percent of utility workers who are retiring in the next few years.

Only a little over 10 percent of respondents said they were having trouble staying up with all of the new technology that's being brought in to modernize the grid.

The results fit with what I know about most utility engineers. We like technology and we want to make a difference. We don't do well when we lose our sense of professional worth and purpose.

Here's my story.

In the late 1960s I found myself as an electrical engineering student on the Berkeley Campus of the University of California. There were minor distractions such as burning of the ROTC building, daily riots, and constant sinus irritation from all the pepper gas. But no matter, I loved every course, particularly physics and math. The semiconductor industry was really taking off and, with the infant Silicon Valley just a few miles away, the Berkeley EE staff was right in the thick of developments. After taking several courses from Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel and guest lecturer, I was enthralled with semiconductor physics – particularly the quantum mechanics of semiconductor junctions. I ended up taking six successive courses in quantum mechanics (what a masochist), three of them from Gerson Goldhaber, Nobel Physicist from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories.

With my sagging finances I still had to follow the money, so when my NASA fellowship funding ran out in the early ‘70s, I had to start looking for a job. A friend told me about an open position at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in the research department which, at that time, was in Emeryville, just a few miles from the Berkeley campus.

Now I never considered working for an electric utility – what was the technical challenge or attraction in schlepping single-frequency current through big ugly structures? But I was broke and figured I would work for a year, get a car, catch up on bills and then go back to school and finish my doctorate. So my father-in-law bought me a business suit and I got a haircut and went for the interview. Soon I was managing the largest high-voltage laboratory on the West Coast, raising a family, mowing a lawn, and, surprisingly, having a lot of fun working on some tough technical challenges.

I had a great 27-year career with PG&E and only left because the R&D department was dismantled and the hands-on work went away. I was left with endless budget planning, time sheets and managing contractors who were having all the fun. I was bored out of my ever-loving skull. I no longer looked forward to going to work. I felt trapped and under-appreciated. I had a great boss, but I knew he was trapped also.

I finally took some action and used my performance bonus to hire a personal career consultant. With his help I soon discovered that I was spending at least eight hours a day doing the things that I went to college to avoid doing. And I didn't have the opportunity to do the things I went to school to do.

So I left on my own steam (and without a retirement package) and became a consultant for a number of years. I got to travel and expand my contact with technology and company cultures. Now I have a terrific position where I get to dabble in just about every area of energy related science and technology.

Financially I would have been better off staying where I was and retiring with benefits. But I'm not sure I could have survived emotionally. It wasn't the company's fault - I had just quit steering my own career and was adrift. That's why I can understand and sympathize with folks who are disillusioned and feel stuck.

Love your job? That's terrific. Struggling to stay sane? Then take control of your career and make some changes. It can be done, even in this economy. There are growing, exciting challenges in this industry that can get your juices flowing. You just have to get in the right spot.

Want some ideas? Shoot me an email ([email protected]). I'll respond as time permits. Got your own story or ideas for others? Leave a comment below.

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