Friday, December 18, 2009

Career counselling?

What advice would I give to a student looking for a career in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate change mitigation?

This is an interesting question, as our Unity College admissions calendar is well in progress and the Admissions Office is assembling next year's entering class. It's also in the news. Each morning, if I have time, I read the New York Times and scan the education section headlines, and lately the paper has been full of articles about admissions.

I encounter the admissions process through visits by high schoolers. I generally meet most of the entering students in our Sustainability Design and Technology Program one or two years before they attend Unity College. They come for a visit, or attend one of our Open Houses, meet me, and we have a conversation.

The conversation that I can have with them at that point is naturally shallow, as are most processes associated with this stage of the choosing-a-college process. I can't tell you how many students have shown up to talk, only to realize that they were looking for something completely different. Students show up thinking that we offer a program in household installation, for instance. Or they somehow arrive believing that they can have a career in energy without doing science or math.

Often the first thing I ask is, "so you want to be an applied scientist working in the energy field" When they're stumped or bemused by this question, that's a bad sign. They hadn't realized that what we offer is a science degree in energy. I don't know how high schoolers show up at my door thinking this, but they do.

Indeed, I'm not sure how high school and college age people think or where they get their information from.

Which is good. That's not really my job.

But every week I have long conversations and/or email correspondence with half a dozen to a dozen different professionals that already work in this field. Sometimes we are talking or writing about students, setting up internships or projects, for instance. But more often than not I'm helping solve real world problems that these professionals encounter, in energy analysis, anemometry, finance, or legislation. They call me up or email me for answers, to stay in touch, to learn how to do new things, or I call them for the same reasons.

So I know what these well paid professionals do for a living, how they or the businesses they work for make money, what the skill sets are that they seek in order to make more money, and how to train students up to the proper standard in those skill sets.

That is my job, isn't it?

Thank heavens I don't have to think like a high schooler, though!

What I have to do instead is put the information needed in the workplace into forms and levels that high school and college-entry age folks can understand.

So, based on that information, what advice do I have for the student seeking a degree program and remunerative employment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate mitigation?

First, up, lay down the iPod, get off Twitter or Facebook, remove all distractions, and settle down for at least a minute.

You're going to need to learn to concentrate.

The modern world is full of distractions for all people, young and old, and the way that the field of energy and climate is evolving is no different. There is all kinds of spin and greenwash. But the great majority of successful professionals I encounter are not this kind of person. They are analysts and engineers, number crunchers and applied scientists who have a natural tendency to want to solve practical problems in making green energy or saving dirty, brown energy and in accounting for the emissions that are reduced when either of the above happen.

This is good, because this is where the money is, that pays their salaries. Energy is valuable, and green energy more valuable than brown, so if you know how to make green energy or save brown energy, then you know how to make or save money. You have to be able to account for making or saving that money if you want to get paid -- you must prove to your employer or the government that you are making or saving this money. But the potential supply of money to pay your salary is quite large. There's an awful lot of wasted energy in this world.

You need to learn to concentrate so you are capable of analyzing the energy problems of whatever organization you are working for, and solving them. Most organizations are complicated and energy can be made or saved in hundreds of different ways. It takes concentration to analyze all the ways and lay them out for study and pick the most cost effective ones and come up with physical improvements.

If you are prone to distraction, you won't do very well at this. So learn to concentrate.

The next thing I would say is, get real. Put away the ego. Stop noticing yourself. The world is not a stage on which you may play out the fantasy of your life. Get used to noticing, identifying, interpreting physical reality instead.

These energy problems are real problems with real physical embodiments. There's either a leak in the building envelope or there isn't. The oil level goes down faster or slower in the tank. The meter turns faster or slower, or if you're really good, backwards. Something physical has happened. You have made a difference or not.

You're in the picture, but you're not the important thing. The machine or the building that is using energy is the thing. Reduce the ego, get outside of yourself, and study the thing, not how you feel about the thing.

This is not a job for folks who enjoy telling fictional stories, for fantasists, or egotists, or grand-standers who like the idea of spinning out their own egos. Good analysts are often quite modest types, with modest dress and modest habits. Sometimes we're downright frumpy.

This is a job for somewhat grumpy Zen masters who can leave their egos at the door to the boiler room. People who are prepared to see things, to notice stuff. People who are more comfortable doing than being.

Pocket protectors, suspenders, toolbelts, sensible shoes, backpacks or handbags that contain useful stuff, these are all signs of the emerging energy master. Who cares what others think about how I look? It's not what I look that counts. It's what I know. My students may not be the most well dressed on campus. (But they will be the most well paid on graduation.) They are not the most gregarious, nor the most popular. Some, like me, tend to the grumpy.

But this is only because what we are interested in most is outside of ourselves, and we don't necessarily like what we see. When we get to the point where the thing we wish to fix is fixed, then we'll be happier.

The next thing I'm going to say is, be patient. Take your time to understand things.

Good news. This is a good area to be in right now. It's probably the best area to be in, from a job security and financial point of view.

Here's a common-enough type of headline about humanities majors who can't find jobs.

Our Sustech students won't have that problem. The energy sector, especially the renewable energy sector, proved relatively recession-proof during this latest business cycle droop.

Wind power in particular was one area where companies continued to hire during even the worst of the recession. And salaries are relatively high. Most of the just-left-college professionals I talk to, with only two or three or four years under their belts, get paid more than I do.

If I didn't love teaching and learning, I'd quit and take one of these jobs myself!

So why can't our Admissions Office find more students who want to work in this relatively recession free and relatively well-paid area? The usual American aversion to science, technology, engineering and math is one reason. There was a time when this country turned out the best scientists and engineers in the world, and in many ways that's still true, but you wouldn't think so sometimes, especially when you're trying to find a high schooler who wants a good career.

I don't know what it is that teachers and parents and pop culture does to scare students away from science and math, but it sure works.

Science and math is hard, but not that hard. One of the things that constantly amazes me in my energy outreach work is how easily people's eyes glaze over or they get confused when you show them a schematic, a spreadsheet, or a GIS map. People lack patience with complicated ideas. We geeks and wonks get paid because we have this patience. The huge STEM salary premium, the extra money you get paid for the rest of your life for being a bit of a wonk, is not so terribly hard to get.

You just have to be a tiny little bit more patient with science and math than the competition. That's all it takes.

Finally, I'd say, be prepared to change your ideas lots of times in life, based on new evidence and the emerging situation. I can't tell you what the price of a barrel of oil or a tonne of carbon will be in even one year's time, let alone for the rest of your career. But everything you want to do, every problem you want to fix, will be more or less easily fixed depending on those two metrics and many others. As the major facts of the energy and climate system change, so will you need to change. And you will need to be able to bootstrap yourself into new areas of expertise. the basic skills and knowledge: analysis and problem solving, physics, ecology, engineering, accounting, business skills, presentation skills, these will remain the same.

But the problem will change. So don't get stuck on one thing. Keep your eyes looking down the track. Read the papers and the blogs, trying to see what's ahead.

And keep your hard hat handy.

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