The world is facing an existential threat in the form of climate change, marked by extreme weather events, rising temperatures, and sea-level rise. Congress has allocated hundreds of billions of dollars through subsidies and tax incentives to combat this crisis and transition towards clean energy solutions like electric vehicles and renewable energy. At the same time, the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the need for a stable pipeline of advanced hardware, including microchips, to ensure national security and industrial competitiveness. Addressing these challenges requires a robust workforce in electric power engineering. This blog explores the efforts led by the University of Minnesota to build such a workforce, responding to the urgent need and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented by substantial public investments.
The Looming Workforce Shortage
Given the significant investments in clean energy and infrastructure, the need for electric power engineers has never been more critical. The Infrastructure Bill, Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS Act have earmarked substantial funds for clean energy and electric vehicle technologies. Estimates suggest that the demand for electric power engineers could be in the hundreds of thousands over the next 5 to 10 years. However, this demand comes at a time when there is a crisis in electrical engineering education.
The decline in student enrollment in power-related courses is a pressing concern, affecting both universities and community colleges. Addressing the shortage of qualified engineers has become a paramount challenge that demands immediate action. In response to the crisis in power engineering education, the University of Minnesota, in collaboration with various stakeholders, organized the third instance of the NSF and NAE-funded workshop titled “Building a Robust Workforce in Electric Power Engineering.” The workshop brought together key minds and decision-makers from various sectors to explore in-depth multiple pathways toward building a robust workforce in electric power engineering. More than 50 attendees spanning a cross-section of the community congregated for two days in Albuquerque. The workshop facilitated detailed discussions and innovative strategies, emphasizing the urgency of revitalizing the field of power engineering and addressing the diversion of talents toward fields like Computer Science. With the energy sector at the cusp of a paradigm shift towards becoming green and sustainable, and the impending national security concerns stemming from workforce attrition, the workshop served as a critical step in devising a comprehensive plan to equip the next generation of engineers with the skills and inspiration required to steer the power grid towards a sustainable and secure future.
Democratizing Technical Education
We propose a multi-pronged approach to address the workforce shortage and democratize technical education. This approach involves students from diverse backgrounds, including from tribal, rural, and marginalized urban communities, who often lack access to technical training.
Reaching out to High School Students
To create a pipeline of future engineers, attracting young minds at an early stage is crucial. To that effect, we developed a pipeline course, “Climate Crisis: Implementing Solutions,” highlighting electrical power’s importance in combating climate change. This course is being taught at the University of Minnesota and five metro-area high schools, and recently began to be offered in an out-of-state high school under our university’s dual-credits, concurrent-enrollment program. Community colleges can also easily offer this course to draw high school students into this pathway. It serves as an excellent entry point for high school students into the field of electrical power engineering.
Creating Pathways through Community Colleges
To make technical education accessible to a broader audience, we advocate offering a Certificate in Electric Power Engineering through community colleges. This approach addresses declining enrollments in four-year colleges and offers cost-effective education options for students. The certificate program would require students to complete industry-relevant courses over six months, building upon their associate degree from a community college. This pathway enables students to enter the workforce sooner and pursue further education after having entered the job market and begun supporting themselves.
Utilizing CUSP Resources and Establishing Centers for Power Engineering Education
Through the Consortium of Universities for Sustainable Power (CUSP™) various course materials for undergraduate power engineering courses have been made freely available. These courses also provide a hands-on experience using labs developed through grants from the Office of Naval Research and commercialized by a University of Minnesota startup (Sciamble Corp.) at an extremely low cost. For each of these courses, there is an underlying textbook published by Wiley.
We aim to convince the faculty, department heads, and deans at various universities to establish decentralized sub-consortiums for electric power engineering education, each led by a university. These centers will collaborate with each other, then connect with the community colleges, which in turn link up with local high schools. All the institutions, together with support from the industry, will utilize CUSP™ resources with the ultimate aim of making technical education widely accessible.
To facilitate this, we are in the process of establishing a nonprofit (CUSP Academy) that will act as a source and a resource for all the requisite material to various sub-consortiums. We are attempting to create an open-source, self-sustaining ecosystem where mostly autonomous sub-consortiums can adapt and further develop the material from the CUSP Academy as they see fit. By creating a national network of such centers, we aim to build a highly educated and skilled workforce in electric power engineering, catering to the nation’s clean energy and national security goals.
Creating a National Network for Electric Power Engineering Education to Cultivate the Workforce Needed for a Sustainable Future
Building a robust workforce in electric power engineering is a national imperative, given the urgency of combating climate change and ensuring national security. Our multi-pronged approach, involving pipeline courses in high schools, community college pathways, and the establishment of Centers for Electric Power Engineering Education, aims to democratize technical education and make it accessible to all. By leveraging CUSP™ resources and fostering collaboration between universities, community colleges, and industries, we envision a future where the nation is equipped with hundreds of thousands of skilled power engineers ready to lead the clean energy revolution and ensure a sustainable future for generations to come.
Ned Mohan and Siddharth Raju
University of Minnesota