The information on this page was obtained during an interview on May 30, 2013.
The Energy Center of Wisconsin is a non-profit organization working mostly regionally and nationally on energy efficiency in the built environment as well as renewable energy. The ~40 employees work with utilities to improve the energy efficiency of new commercial construction and evaluate the outcomes of efficiency programs such as the National Low-Income Weatherization Program. The Center is very mission-focused and their employees are individually motivated around energy efficiency and renewable energy as a solution to climate change.
At present the firm is focused on analytical and engineering work related to perfecting energy efficiency technologies. Applicants with Associate's degrees wouldn't be turned down a priori, but opportunities for them to succeed with the firm are rare. The general baseline for new hires is a Bachelor's degree - even their administrative and communications people in the office have a BS and/or experience in the science and issues surrounding energy. The program evaluation side of the firm also has opportunities for people with degrees in economics and experience in handling and managing large data sets. The bulk of the workforce at present is made up of people with Master's degrees in electrical or mechanical engineering. This is an area where they are constantly hiring right now because they have trouble finding people with the right degree and experience. There are many people with degrees in sustainability or environmental policy, which is great, but the Center really needs people with the higher level of quantitative skills. So candidates with Professional Engineer certification and 5 or so years of experience are highly sought after. The firm currently only employs one PhD, a geoscientist, as their technical director but there are some other who are ABD.
Energy Center prides itself on a quasi-academic style of hiring and operations. They conduct preliminary phone interviews and then bring candidates in to meet with the whole team that they would be working with to see how they fit in and interface with the team. On the job, they use peer-mentoring practices and frequent team meetings so that less experienced employees can learn from more experienced colleagues. They also bring their use a number of interns who participate just like full employees in these practices which puts them in a great position to be hired on at the end of their internships.
Desirable Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities
Geoscience knowledge and skills
Hiring of geoscience people is currently hampered by the available sources of funding. Most current funding comes from utilities or from the energy efficiency side of government programs. So there is more emphasis on discrete technologies like LED lighting or geothermal HVAC at the moment which drives more hires in engineering than geoscience.
The whole energy efficiency paradigm in the utility sector is driven by regulatory decisions that were made during the 1970s. As yet, there has been no successful attempt to integrate energy efficiency as a part of a robust, overarching policy response to Climate Change. If there were an aggressive, comprehensive policy on climate (including a price for carbon emissions) then there would be an impetus to tie energy efficiency more closely to measurable environmental effects. For example, if there was a way to connect the regulation of energy use to the regulations surrounding air quality, then there could be a way to measure efficiency efforts relative to data about particulate emissions and field-gathered data rather than just models and statistical analysis. This would drive the need for more air and water quality specialists and scientists with expertise in the habitat impacts of climate change. But this is a slow evolution without a overarching regulatory overhaul at the federal level.
Other skills and abilities
Important aspects that they look for when hiring new people include:
- The size of the operation means that everyone needs to be a self-starter and capable of managing their own workload. This often involves balancing work on multiple assignments and excelling across all of them.
- Independence of thought and critical thinking skills that allow someone to take a stand on an issue and be able to back it up with data.
- Leadership potential is also an important factor for small firms as it points to the ability to promote from within when the opportunity arises.
- Flexibility and curiosity
- Quantitative skills
- Collaborative mentality
- Good communication skills, both within the organization and with clients
What do you see as future trends in your workforce?
Energy efficiency world is going to stay basically stable over the next 5-10 years. After the recent energy boom, there will likely be mergers and acquisitions and "right sizing" in utility companies over the next few years. But small groups like Energy Center of WI should be pretty immune to most of that since they provide "boutique" services in specialty areas. Utilities are going to continue to invest in energy efficiency because the regulators are going to continue to tell them to do so and the regulators are not going away.
Outside of energy efficiency, a lot of the future depends on whether there is large policy and regulatory change at the federal level. If something substantial like a carbon tax is implemented, it would really diversify the sector and push innovations to connect efficiency with climate change solutions.
What can higher education do to prepare students for these future trends?
Green building and energy efficiency are making great leaps forward internationally, especially in places like China. So students should not be parochial and be prepared for international opportunities. Institutions would be doing them a service to expand students' exposure to other cultures and languages.
The more private sector engagement in education the better. Bring real-world problems and issues into the classroom so that students can get more experience in the things that companies care about.
Colleges and universities should be embracing new ways of teaching such as gameification and simulations that get away from plain lecture and move towards providing a more nuanced, real-world experience of the issues involved.