Electrical Power Generation Careers Offer Rewards, Constant Variety

Published 12.13.2005

Diesel Truck, Heavy Equipment & Power Generation

Restoration of electrical power in the wake of a natural disaster or wintry weather, or in the aftermath of a manmade horror such as occurred on 9/11, has become an all-too-frequent necessity in the recent past.

Power lines snap, infrastructure crumbles, and countless homes and businesses are plunged into darkness and confusion. As storms ripped the Gulf Coast, for instance, media coverage regularly included the marshalling of emergency generators for use while utility crews diligently worked to get customers more permanently back on line.

For those in the field, however, Hurricane Katrina and her headline-grabbing cousins only serve to accentuate a void that exists year-round: the thirst for reliable generators of standby power and the even-more-reliable technicians to service them.

One need look no further than his or her own community to see the extent of opportunities for an emergency-generator technician and Pennsylvania College of Technology's two-year electric power generation technology major is helping to fill that niche.

Jacob Vough, left, meets with Kenneth C. Kuhns, assistant professor of electrical technology%2Foccupations, in this 2001 photo. "It is extremely rewarding to know that what you do in this field is very much a large part of our nationwide infrastructure, when it comes to providing reliable electricity," says Kenneth C. Kuhns, assistant professor of electrical technology/occupations. "This program can open many doors in the pursuit of a successful career."

In fact, the college's industry partners say the need can be summed up in one simple question:

"Where are the facilities that can't afford to be without power? Airports ... hospitals ... universities," explains Cliff Barnes, general manager/product support for the Bensalem-based Giles and Ransome Inc.

There are the obvious implications of an outage at a health-care facility, military installation or anywhere else where safety and security could be compromised by a loss of power. The recipe for a crippling disaster is even more basic than that in this data-rich culture.

"Imagine that you're a computer-intensive business and don't have a dedicated power-backup system," he added. "Any information-driven company could be set back completely if an outage wipes out its current transactions."

Filling Industry's Needs
Penn College's EPG major was launched in 2001, a time when "rolling blackouts" were commonplace along California's sapped power grids, and remains a prime example of the institution's responsiveness to its industry partners.

"The Caterpillar dealers had a great voice in its development," recalls Ronald Garber, service administration manager for Giles and Ransome. A member of one of the college's advisory committees corporate experts who inhabit the "real world" into which graduates move Garber says CAT personnel were allowed substantial input into the development of the curriculum: reviewing syllabi, lab content and teaching aids, etc.

One of the few such programs in the East, Penn College's power-generation curriculum is equally unique for its cross-discipline structure. Students take courses both in the School of Construction and Design Technologies' electrical technology department an essential training component and the School of Natural Resources Management, where they are provided the knowledge to install, troubleshoot and service diesel- and natural-gas-powered generator sets.

"As an assistant professor in the electrical department, I find it very rewarding to work with students in the EPG program, knowing that, once they successfully complete this program of study, their futures are both dynamic and rewarding beyond their expectations," Kuhns notes. There is something very special about learning about the internal workings of backup power generation which enables one to work in a field which is both mechanical and electrical in nature."

Graduates are prepared to work as power-generation technicians, technical sales consultants, industrial maintenance or field-service technicians, sales representatives and service managers. Supplementing the major's instructional caliber are the college's Caterpillar partners who hire its graduates and whose steadfast support is reflected in a 100-percent placement rate.

"The day-to-day events of this job are what really make it exciting to go to work each day," says Matthew J. Strine of York, a May 2004 graduate in EPG, employed in Cleveland Brothers' Industrial Engine Division.

"An office job or working in the same shop day in and day out would grow very old. Yesterday, I was at the top of a mountain working at a cellular-phone site and, today, I was a mile underground in a mine working on a generator; those are just two places you won't see at a regular job."

Most of the generator sets on which Strine works are for stand-by, emergency applications hospitals, airports, schools, factories, military bases, even some prisons but he says he also works at prime power sites, including co-generation plants such as landfills that have engines running on methane emissions.

Matthew J. Strine kneels next to two CAT G3616 turbochargers. Sixteen-cylinder engines, powered by landfill gas, are visible in the background."These sites are particularly interesting due to the fact that there are usually multiple engines and the engines used are very large; 12- to 16-cylinder engines that put out almost 3,000 horsepower and are the size of school buses," he explains. "Overhauling and maintaining engines that have twin turbochargers the size of truck tires and pistons 12 inches across is something not a whole lot of people get to do, especially at my age."

Tilling a Fertile Field
Strine and fellow alumnus Joseph A. Duskasky of Wapwallopen worked on and off throughout college for Cleveland Brothers CAT, so they had sufficient on-the-job collateral to quickly make their mark.

"Most technicians have knowledge in both engines and the electrical side, but are usually stronger in one or the other. What I've found since graduating from Penn College is I'm very well-versed in both areas, making me a valuable and variable asset to my company," Strine says. "I am by no means an expert, but, with the background I got from Penn College, I have the knowledge and skills I need to advance quickly."

Another of those fast-track alumni and a member of the college's first EPG graduating class is Jacob Vough, Markelton, who is distinguishing himself as a field service technician with Beckwith Machinery Co., a Caterpillar affiliate headquartered in Murrysville. Originally enrolled in diesel equipment technology, he was asked by his eventual employer to consider a career in electrical power generation.

"Growing up on a farm, I was heavy into the mechanics of things and really enjoyed doing electrical work," he remembers. "So when Beckwith directed me toward this new major, it was a no-brainer for me. They were helping to pay for my education, I was guaranteed a job out of college, and on most days it's cleaner than working on trucks!"

Vough knows firsthand the daily variety of fieldwork, and he's satisfied with the mix of duties. One day might find him doing an oil change at a hospital; a recent assignment saw him performing maintenance work at a landfill power facility where 36 16-cylinder engines put out 6 megawatts of power.

He is grateful for his Penn College training a trademark blend of classroom experience and hands-on laboratory work but also for the opportunities for education beyond the college's campuses. Particularly rewarding, Vough says, was an Electrical Generation Systems Association conference and trade show in Florida, at which the latest EPG advances were on display and employers were more than willing to share stories from the field.

"I can understand the excitement and enthusiasm that Matt Strine, Joe Duskasky and Jacob Vough find in their work," remarks Kuhns, whose leadership in the EPG major was affirmed with his 2003 selection as Caterpillar's first "Pathfinder to Excellence" faculty award-winner. "I worked with these folks and others over the past five years, both when they were students here at Penn College and after graduation as they found themselves working in the field."

Ronald Garber, service administration manager for the Bensalem-based Giles and Ransome, discusses options with students during a Fall 2005 Career Fair at the college's School of  Natural Resources Management.Barnes and Garber were interviewed on the eve of a "Career Fair" at Penn College's Schneebeli Earth Science Center near Allenwood, during which they hoped to recruit technicians as well as prospects for other careers of interest to Caterpillar dealers' far-reaching markets.

EPG offers a challenging opportunity, where rewards are high for those willing to systematically earn their way. Where many new graduates in some fields expect to quickly rise from college senior to top administration, electric-power generation requires a steeper learning curve.

"They'll start out working with a more experienced person for a minimum of six months maybe even a year or more before they're ready to move on to more responsibility," said Garber, highlighting a key word in the EPG glossary. "If you're working at Children's Hospital, for instance, with four or five 16-cylinder generators, you'd better know which one to take down to service the system. When someone's life is on the line, it's a huge responsibility."

For more information about the electric power generation technology major at Penn College, visit online , call the Admissions Office at 1-800-367-9222 or send e-mail .