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Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Getting to Know Michael Ahern, Expert in the HR and Recruitment Community

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In countless ways, the utility industry is currently moving into new and undiscovered territory. New technologies; heightened regulatory focus; customers becoming partners rather than just end users; and so many more. One trend that is flying a bit under the radar is the aging out of many career utility professionals and taking with them much of their priceless institutional knowledge, needing to be replaced by a new and younger workforce. Simultaneously, strategies and technologies used for training of utility professionals will become even more important.  As this transformation takes place, the HR & Recruitment professionals in utilities will become even more valuable than they already are, and so will the HR & Recruitment community of Energy Central.

Indispensable in that process will be the network of experts for this community, and so today we bring you our next iteration of the Power Perspectives™ “Getting to Know Your Experts” interview series, and the first one to feature an Energy Central HR and Recruitment expert. Michael Ahern has been in the utility sector since the 1980s, and he’s watched firsthand the transformations slowly (at first) take place and is now providing valuable insights on today’s more rapid evolution in the sector. As issues in this area come to the forefront, you can look to Michael as one of the expert voices in Energy Central who can provide context and experience. To drive that point home, please enjoy the interview I completed with him on a range of utility topics:

Matt Chester: To start, thanks for being one of our trusted Energy Central experts and participating in this interview process so the rest of the community can better understand the experience you bring to the table as one of our experts. So, to start off simply—what is your experience in the utility industry? What path did your career take you to get to this point as an HR/Recruitment expert for the utility industry?

Michael Ahern: My utility industry career is extensive and varied.  In 1981, I started as an Associate Engineer in Power Generation at Northeast Utilities-- now part of Eversource Energy--  working to resolve operational challenges at our nuclear, fossil and hydro power plants.  In the 1990s, I worked at the Millstone Nuclear Generating Station rising from a Project Engineering role through levels of leadership in Procurement, Engineering, Maintenance, Oversight (or Quality Control/Quality Assurance), and Asset Strategy (where I was in charge of the $80 million annual capital program). 

Following the sale of Millstone to Dominion in 2001, I rejoined Northeast Utilities as the Director of Distribution Engineering in 2002.  I then led our Transmission Operations and Planning before becoming a Services Vice-President in 2005.  As a VP, I was responsible for a wide variety of services including: Distribution Engineering; Training; Safety; Vegetation Management; and Planning, Performance and Analysis. 

I retired from Northeast Utilities in 2012 and began my higher education career at my undergraduate alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute.  Here I am personally responsible for the graduate Power Systems Program; a federally funded research team to help improve the power grid’s resilience to cyber-attacks; and teaching an occasional business course.  This higher education role includes working with utility industry leaders to help them meet their talent needs, especially for engineers.

 

MC: You’ve spent a lot of time in the area of training utility professionals—can you comment on how that process of utility sector training has changed over the years, both in terms of strategies that are best to use and areas that require training that weren’t needed previously?

MA: Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the utility industry build on its solid foundation in training. Back in the 1980s, the lineworkers and electricians already enjoyed a well-established, extensive, multi-year apprentice program.  Nuclear plant operators already had an extensive training and licensing program.  All of these successful programs remain today. 

But in terms of changes I’ve observed, a few come to mind. Since the 1990s, nuclear plant engineers have formal, structured programs accredited by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) to help achieve operational excellence.  Since the 2004 Northeast Blackout, Transmission System operators now have formal certification programs.  Additionally, as the electric delivery system becomes more complex with distributed and renewable power generation, increased training and education will be needed for Protection  & Controls engineers. And finally, extensive training on basic computer hygiene for many, many people in the utility industry is helping to meet the challenge of power system cybersecurity.

 

MC: A more frequent topic of discussion these days is how the utility sector specifically is going to have to deal with the transition from its crop of experienced employees who have been there for decades with all the institutional knowledge that comes to that and replacing them with a new workforce. What types of challenges does that bring, and how can utilities best set them up for success in such a transition?

MA: The demographics of the utility industry have been an ongoing challenge for the last decade.  Baby boomers (like me) are retiring from utility roles and the industry is replacing them with new early career professionals.  Written procedures and training are helping to assure the necessary knowledge transfer and successfully meet this challenge.  At Northeast Utilities, we required individual employee development plans to help drive this transfer. 

At the same time, this demographic change is an opportunity.  Utilities can shift to more formal work procedures and training to help reduce the chance of errors by people of any age.

MC: Your experience stretches from cybersecurity to risk management to power systems and more. What topic do you think is the hardest one from a training and education standpoint?

MA: In my view, the most difficult training challenge is in safety.  Poor work practices can lead to faster job completions with no adverse consequences for many, many years.  This is a type of “negative training”. The effect is compounded if leadership compliments people for quickly getting the job done and ignoring how it was done.  Leadership should observe work firsthand and insist that safe and secure practices are always used.  The utility industry is wonderful and essential but the hazards from unsafe practices can be very unforgiving.    

 

MC: As an active and trusted Energy Central expert, can you comment on what value you get from the Energy Central platform and community? How is this outlet beneficial to you and how do you try to use it to benefit the community? And are there any last words you want to leave our readers with?

MA: I am pleased to participate in the information exchange hosted by Energy Central.  It helps me stay current with today’s concerns and we can all share our experiences.

Overall, it’s an exciting time to be in the utility industry!  The world is working to achieve a future with reduced carbon emissions resulting in ever more renewable generation and the electrification of transportation.  The industry already provides essential services, and this will only add to all that’s been accomplished.

     


 

Thanks to Michael for participating in the “Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Getting to Know Your Expert” interview series and for dedicating his time and energy to our community.

The other expert interviews that we’ve completed in this series can be read here, and if you are interested in becoming an expert then you can reach out to me or you can apply here.

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