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Career options for Power Engineering graduates — Part II: Pivot and More

Part I of the article summarized the career options for those who look for an engineering role in the power industry. However, being an engineer in a power systems company is certainly not the only available path. This article will explore the options of using your power systems background to make a purposeful career switch in a different but related direction, i.e., pivot.

When your interests change as you learn more about the industry or feel that you have limited growth opportunities, pivoting can be a great choice. You may pivot to a different role in the same industry or a similar role in another industry, or a combination of both. However, the new role should leverage your original background, in this case, power systems, to some extent. Career pivot usually requires new skills and qualifications. This article will also discuss what you need, such as qualifications, degrees, or certifications, to help you pivot successfully.

Before making a pivot, ask yourself three questions: 1) why do I want to pivot? Is it interest, money, growth opportunities, or something else? 2) what are my strengths? 3) what are the transferable knowledge and skills if I pivot? After you know the answer to these questions and decide to proceed, your options can be one of the following:

  • Project Manager

As the name suggests, a project manager (PM) manages the entire project cycle, ensuring the right people to work on the right tasks and timely delivery. The PM is one of the most common roles for engineers to pivot into and the learning curve, compared to other options, is usually not as steep. If you have some experience working in a project team and know what a project cycle looks like, you may simply apply for a project manager position in your current company. Assuming you are a PM in one of the companies suggested in Part I, a Power Engineering background will enable you to talk in engineer-friendly languages and prioritize better because you understand the intrinsic linkage of different parts of the projects rather than simply following the book and being a facilitator.

Although not required everywhere, certifications such as Project Management Professional (PMP)® and Six Sigma would help you systematically understand quality control concepts and project management methodologies, including predictive, agile, and hybrid, if you did not have such training before. Of course, having these certificates does not necessarily prove that you are or will be a good PM. Still, it may increase the chances of getting an interview, especially when applying for a different company.

  • Engineers in Related Fields

Power electronics is the application of solid-state electronics to control and convert electric power, e.g., between AC and DC. Power electronics devices have been widely adopted in many applications, from circuit breakers to induction motors/generators. If you are interested in building and testing hardware and took related classes, you may be able to pivot to become a Power Electronics engineer and work for electric devices companies such as Schneider Electric and ABB or tech companies such as Tesla, Apple, and Intel.

Due to recent changes in policies and macroeconomy, software engineers and data scientists have become an increasingly popular choice for a career pivot. While the curriculum of an Electrical Engineering degree should set up a good basis for this switch, a successful pivot typically requires intensive training in programming, data structure, and algorithms as the interview of these roles will require live coding. Tech companies, including start-ups today, have a large demand for these roles, and the overall salary plus stock package is great compared to other industries. However, it is important to factor in the living costs when considering offers, as companies that have these roles are typically based in areas with extreme real estate prices.

  • Renewable Development and Contract Origination

To promote a clean power grid and account for the positive externalities of clean energy resources, various subsidies are developed to incentivize the rapid development and installation of renewables such as solar, wind, and the associated energy storage in the power grid. By signing a long-term power purchase agreement (PPA) with utilities, renewable developers will enjoy stable cash flows for the duration of the agreement and secure the required return of capital. Utilities, on the other hand, will get the energy to serve the load and meet the clean energy requirement. Therefore, renewable developers need someone to originate the renewable energy off-take contract and negotiate terms with potential utility partners to get the most bang for their investment.

The ideal candidates should have a strong background in finance and energy off-take deal structures, including pricing, valuation, structuring, and contract negotiation. An MBA or a law degree with an engineering background is preferred but not required. Additionally, it will be a strong plus to understand how wholesale energy markets work in different ISO/RTO footprints and the generation interconnection requirements of utilities and ISOs.

  • Consulting

If you like traveling and enjoy a fast-paced lifestyle, the consulting path may be right for you. Consulting firms sell professional advice to businesses and organizations, helping them solve business challenges, improve financial performance, and plan their resources strategically. In the consulting space, some are big generalists, such as the most famous M.B.B., while others are boutique and may specialize in one or a few industries. Take the energy industry as an example: most generalists have branches in the energy and utility businesses, focusing on M&A, strategies, and energy policies. In addition, common names specialized in the power industry include Black & Veatch, E3, Guidehouse, and Utilicast.

As a consultant, you should be strong in problem-solving and excellent in communication. Each of your clients has its unique problems to solve, and they expect you, the “expert” they pay big money for, to quickly dig to the root and propose a solution that they can act on and monitor the performance improvement.

Consultants have a well-defined career path. Top-tier consulting companies hire undergraduates (only) from top universities as Analysts. If you perform well, you will advance to Senior Analyst in 2–3 years. An MBA or a Ph.D. is usually required to get the Associate title, the next level in the career ladder. As an Associate, you typically will have a team of (shared) analysts support you. The subsequent levels are Manger, Director, and Partner. According to ConsultingPoint, the average annual attrition rate of major consulting companies in the U.S. is about 10–15%, and the average tenure is less than five years, based on previous 12 months data. Consulting companies care about where you graduate and your GPA. Top-tier firms normally hire MBA Associates only from the targeted M7 business schools plus a few more. Schools such as McCombs and Haas offer MBA classes in the energy field and have good connections with the energy industry.

In addition, consulting is not a typical nine-to-five job. If you envision stability and structure, look elsewhere. Due to its client-oriented nature, it is not uncommon to feel that you are in an “always-on” mode, especially in the beginning years and that the schedule can be challenging if you have a family. The good news is that it offers nice exit opportunities at almost every level on your consulting career ladder. If you leverage your consulting experience well, it will not be difficult to land a (senior) management position in a Fortune 500 company.

  • Investment Banking/Private Equity

Historically, investing in the utility space is often thought to be predictable and sometimes even boring (in terms of the return). The nature of the business has determined that it cannot take as much risk and move as fast as many other industries such as IT. Things, however, are changing. The need for new technologies to better control and monitor the grid together with the trend to a decarbonized (green) generating fleet has created many opportunities and incentives for incumbents and new players in this field to work collaboratively. One way for large incumbents to go “green” while remaining competitive is through M&A, a process generally managed by investment banking (IB) and private equity (PE) firms to combine and consolidate companies with various financial transactions and legal agreements.

The work in an IB/PE mainly includes researching the industry and companies, identifying M&A targets, valuations, and conducting due diligence analysis. Top-tier IB and PE companies primarily hire analysts and associates (only) from top universities. Ideal candidates must have a strong background in financial modeling and validation, with previous similar industry M&A experience preferred. Similar to consulting, IB/PE also has well-defined career ladders and requirements for promotion. One thing to note is that the IB/PE type of job definitely not a nine-to-five job. On average, you should expect to work 70–80 hours a week, which could increase to 100 hours during busy times. The good news is that if you can survive the long hours, the salary and year-end bonus are normally very generous compared to other careers.

  • Entrepreneurship

If none of the options above interest you enough, maybe you should consider starting your own business. There are two ways that you can proceed with this route. First, if you have a business idea or a product, you can pitch it to investors to see if they think it is worth investing in. Once you set up the company and get the angel investment, you can procure resources to work on the idea or keep building the product. Some investors will give you feedback, while others may just let you shine. If everything works well, you will keep pitching for investments for several rounds until your company goes public or is acquired by other companies. Second, you can also use the knowledge and connections you build in the power industry over years to start your consulting company.

While being an entrepreneur seems to be an exciting and rewarding option given many successful stories we heard, according to research published in 2013, salaries of the unincorporated entrepreneurs are highly left-skewed with a “fat tail.” In the U.S., the average annual salary for entrepreneurs with a bachelor’s degree, according to Zippia, is $83.5k, with Washington being the highest ($114k) and Mississippi being the lowest ($46k).

  • Experience/Qualifications Needed to Get There

Several options for career pivot are summarized above. To pivot successfully, it is critical to double down your strength and acquire new skills and qualifications needed to get there. If you consider getting a new certification or an advanced degree, ask yourself what you need and why you need it. Also, keep in mind that certifications and degrees alone will not get you there. Just like a school application, you need to present a good package for the role that you are applying for. A shining degree on the resume may get you an interview, but eventually, it is you that is the most important factor.

I will try to summarize the qualifications needed in both Part I and II of the article. An advanced degree in power systems is needed if you want to work in roles that need a more in-depth understanding of the system and the energy market, such as certain development roles at the ISO, vendors, trading companies, and research labs. A Ph.D. is required for tenure-track academic positions. A PMP or Six-Sigma certification can increase the chance of getting a PM role. An MBA or a law degree can be helpful if you want to pivot to the business side. CFA can also add value if the role is financial modeling-focused. For top-tier consulting and some IB/PE firms, an MBA (or a Ph.D. or a J.D.) is required to be promoted to the Associate level and above. Additionally, getting a master’s in computer science may not be a bad idea if you are thinking of becoming a software developer.

  • Conclusions

This article summarizes the options for power systems engineers who are considering a career pivot. While pivoting is a good way to restart your career and could be rewarding in the long term, it can, however, setback your career in the short term as you will likely have to settle for a lower title and sometimes a lower pay. Furthermore, you may incur additional time and money investment to prepare for the pivot, such as getting another degree. Finally, there will always be unforeseen risks down the road, e.g., COVID-19 and its impact on the job market. Whether it is worth investing to pivot? Only you and time can tell.

Lastly, it was a pleasure to collect my thoughts and put this article together. I hope you find it useful for your future endeavors.

This article is also published on LinkedIn.

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Hui Z

Hui Z

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I talk about Power Systems, Electricity Market, and Energy Transition. Founder of The Megawatts—an energy-focused publication: https://medium.com/the-megawatts