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Recruitment: Building a New Team for the Hydro Industry

With so many experienced hydro personnel nearing retirement age, new team members are needed. The Hydro Research Foundation is finding and training new recruits with its Hydro Fellowship Program, now in its second year.

Deborah Linke and Brenna Vaughn

For at least a decade, hydro industry leaders have been hearing an ever-more-persistent drumbeat. The boomer generation — the men and women who have operated the plants, maintained the equipment, designed the facilities, and constructed and refurbished the infrastructure — are nearing retirement age. These employees, with their decades-long devotion to hydropower, represent a wealth of skill, knowledge and common sense. Many of them have literally “grown up” with their plants, enjoying their infancies of design and permitting, nurturing them through their tumultuous adolescent years of construction and commissioning, easing them into their middle ages of operation and maintenance, and aiding them as they approach old age through refurbishments.

As everyone in this industry knows, hydropower is a family team. We see the same faces playing much the same game from year to year. We help each other out when things go wrong. We mourn accidents and losses together. We celebrate the good times and the wins. Suddenly, it seems, our benches are clearing and it’s time to recruit new team members to fill the thinning ranks.

Over the past year, the Hydro Research Foundation Inc. has captured the attention of universities, industry, researchers and students around the U.S. with its new, one-of-a-kind Hydro Fellowship Program. HRF was established in 1994 to fulfill two objectives: to facilitate research and to promote educational opportunities that communicate the value of hydropower. The fellowship program, formally launched in 2010, is designed to attract students to study the hydro industry and, hopefully, choose careers in hydro upon graduation. How is this fellowship program like the NBA?

Hydro requires team development

A Research and Development Forum held by HRF in Salt Lake City in 2000 identified an upcoming personnel crunch for our industry. As a result, many hydro utilities began focusing on knowledge transfer, succession planning and employee development. Human resources managers felt the heat as hydro competed with the high-tech and financial sectors for new employees. There was a great deal of frustration regarding the inability to match salaries and benefits, particularly at the entry levels.

And then came the soaring prices of gasoline and oil, followed by the dawning awareness of climate variability and the implications for the planet. The next influence was a national focus on renewables, of which hydro is the largest renewable energy source. Suddenly hydro was (ahem) sexy again!

HRF has long recognized the importance of education. With its two principal goals in mind, the foundation pursued a grant opportunity from the Department of Energy. Linda Church-Ciocci, executive director of the foundation, says, “The grant represents a unique opportunity for the hydropower industry to identify research that will benefit the industry and attract bright students to careers in hydropower.”

January 2010 was a red-letter month for HRF, when it received a four-year $3 million grant from DOE’s Golden Field Office Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program to establish the first-ever Hydro Fellowship Program.

The foundation took a fairly unusual approach in developing the program. It recognized that hydropower is a renewable energy resource found in 49 of the 50 states. Rather than focusing on one university, the foundation put out a nationwide call for applicants. The hope was to attract strong, smart students researching a wide range of subjects related to conventional and pumped storage hydropower.

During the selection process, more than 125 universities were contacted using electronic media, such as website communications and a marketing program called Constant Contact. The foundation has received applications from 84 students at 40 universities over the past two years. Masters and doctoral level students were eager to conduct research related to hydropower!

Nine fellows were selected in May 2010 and began doing research at their respective universities using foundation fellowships. The industry has welcomed the fellows with open arms and warm enthusiasm. In May 2011, the foundation welcomed an additional 14 fellows. These newest researchers are beginning their work in the summer and fall of 2011.

The HRF fellows are:

The fellowship program has had a significant positive impact on these students. Ann Marie Larquier, a master’s student, says, “When I applied for the HRF fellowship, I had big ambitions for a career in water resources but wasn’t sure how to best pursue them or in what sub-discipline to focus. This fellowship has exposed me to a breadth of opportunities and a well-rounded understanding of the hydropower industry. HRF’s support has allowed to me to conduct thorough, relevant and timely research on the topic of hydropower resources from glacial sources. I hope to apply my new knowledge to Alaska’s long-term renewable energy future.”

 

The students chosen to be the first fellows under the Hydro Research Foundation’s Fellowship Program, and foundation personnel, are (from left to right): John Petrie, Linda Church-Ciocci (executive director of HRF), Jordan Kern, Ann Marie Larquier, Michael George, Minal Parekh, Adam Witt, Marina Kopytkovskiy, Jonathon Lamontagne, Justin Hannon, Brenna Vaughn (grant administrator and event coordinator), and Deborah Linke (program director).

Minal Parekh, a doctoral student, notes, “The Hydro Research Foundation fellowship has given me a greater understanding of how my technical research fits into an overall energy solution. As I study earthen dams as aging infrastructure and investigate methods to detect early signs of failure, opportunities provided by the fellowship have provided me with insight into operations, performance and reliability of dams as a renewable power source. Through the foundation, I have met many people from within the industry with unbounded enthusiasm for hydropower and with equal willingness to share their knowledge and experience.”

The Hydro Fellowship Program has scouts and coaches

The program established a steering group comprised of leaders from academia, industry, utilities and associations. These 12 men and women provide the overall guidance and frame of reference for the program. Part of their task is to keep a keen eye out for emerging issues in order to develop and fine-tune an annual list of research priorities.

Another significant activity is selection of the fellows. The foundation has designed and implemented a review and selection process that assures that the fellows selected are not only strong academically but also have leadership skills because HRF believes that many of today’s fellows will become tomorrow’s leaders.

Another innovation is the provision of an industry mentor and a steering group mentor for each fellow. Providing personal contacts and open doors to the fellows will be key to assuring they remain in the hydropower field as they pursue their careers. There are numerous opportunities to mentor the new team of fellows that will be announced in the summer of 2011.

The fellowship program has training camps

In July 2010, the foundation hosted the first Fellows Roundtable, held in conjunction with the HydroVision International event in Charlotte, N.C. Industry sponsors for the roundtable included Duke Energy, Southern Company, Hydro Performance Processes Inc., the National Hydropower Association and PennWell.

The roundtable gave the fellows the opportunity to attend a Hydro Basics course, participate in a visit to a hydroelectric facility hosted by Duke Energy, interact with industry leaders from around the world and introduce their research topics. In addition, the fellows were introduced to the hydropower community at the HydroVision plenary session. Some students describe the experience as being “drafted into the NBA” in terms of opportunities. John Petrie, a doctoral student, said, “Attending the HydoVision conference helped to put my work into context and see how it can directly benefit the hydropower community.”

Each fellowship award consists of:

All current fellows will attend the 2011 Fellows Roundtable, held in conjunction with HydroVision International in Sacramento, Calif., from July 18 to 23. Fellows will present research findings, introduce new research topics, visit a hydro facility in the area and attend a hydro basics course and HydroVision International. The roundtable presentations will be open to the hydropower community at large. To register to attend the presentations, visit www.hydroevent.com.

 

The program is seeking sponsors

The fellowship program is sustained by a one-time DOE grant. Because the foundation believes the hydro industry needs to continue to seek out and retain the best and the brightest, HRF is actively working to develop industry sponsorships for future fellowships. For more information on these opportunities, contact brenna@hydrofoundation.org.


Deborah Linke is program director and Brenna Vaughn is grant administrator and event coordinator with the Hydro Research Foundation, which recently launched a Hydro Fellowship Program to recruit students to the hydro industry.

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