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The Growing Gap Between Senior and Junior T&D Engineering Specialists

Date: 05 September 2018

A quick scan of job postings for transmission and distribution (T&D) engineers reveals a recurring phrase: subject matter expert (SME). If employers remain willing to hire engineers with niche specialties, so why are so many engineers these days more interested in becoming jacks of all trades?

It’s a real concern for employers in the T&D industry. Hanna Ito, Specialist Consultant - T&D Engineering at LVI Associates, is seeing a growing gap between younger specialist engineers and specialists with over 15 years of experience. Companies are struggling to fill senior SME roles as more engineers pursue generalist career paths. For example, the young engineer who might have once set their sights on a specialty in transmission lines is shifting focus to general civil or structural engineering opportunities. Additionally, protection and control engineers are now looking at general substation engineering or a planning and protection role.

“Many engineers have been moving away from a specialty focus because having a broader focus allows them to not be confined within one area of T&D,” Ito says. “It’s also because it allows them more opportunities to move into in the future.”

Even engineers with an established specialty focus may prefer to search for jobs that complement, rather than limit them to their area of expertise. For example, a power systems engineer with experience in transient stability analysis could shift into transmission planning, as the recent boom in generation interconnection across the country has rapidly increased demand for engineers in this area.

However, there are advantages to becoming a micro-niche specialist that should not be overlooked when plotting out a career. SMEs may be competing for a narrower range of jobs, but they also face less competition for those roles. Experienced specialists can easily set themselves from the general pool of employment prospects. For the right employer, a good SME is worth a premium price.

Companies that fail to bridge the gap between junior and senior SMEs expose themselves to a number of risks, chief among these being the loss of hard-won specialist knowledge. With the number of baby boomers at or near retirement age growing larger, organizations of all kinds have been grappling with the challenges of passing on the older generation’s accumulated experience and insight to younger workers. This only grows more challenging when dealing with highly specialized areas, where there are fewer senior leaders who can claim SME status­—and even fewer junior employees waiting in the wings to pick up that mantle.

Without proper training, younger employees may not be prepared to take the lead on challenging projects when the time comes. A lack of specialist knowledge can readily translate into the kinds of problems that cause cost or schedule overruns. For a T&D company dealing with a large-scale utility project, these mistakes get measured in the many thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

Finding an experienced SME is no small challenge, but Ito has developed her own niche in scouting niche talent. She estimates around half of the engineers in the T&D space don’t have LinkedIn profiles, so simply searching online is not an option. Instead, company recruiters have to turn to methods such as headhunting to acquire T&D engineering specialists. Ito also recommends networking chats with engineers to learn about current market trends and find out industry gossip about the companies that are doing well (or not so well, in some cases). The key is to keep talking with the people in the know: the engineers themselves.

“The best way to find these individuals is by asking for referrals and building your own name in the network so that engineers can see your reputation is credible. You want to build trust so that they can approach you for a confidential discussion about their current career situation,” Ito says. “It’s all about knowing your space and building relationships through networking.”

To learn more about these trends, and how LVI Associates can source specialist talent for your organization, get in touch today.