Rebuilding America’s electricity grid for use with renewable energy sources, developing clean technologies and working in fast-growing energy markets abroad are just a few of the energy-related career opportunities awaiting this year’s MIT graduates, five professionals said during “Exploring Careers in Energy” on Feb. 3.
There are many potential entry points into a vast spectrum of energy careers, panelists said, so students shouldn’t sweat too much over whether they have chosen the perfect major. “Decide which subject matter interests you rather than which unique skills and talents you need to find (a specific) role,” advised an MIT math and physics graduate now working for a government agency.
“We all took a long winding road before we found the job we wanted to be in,” agreed a vice president at a global energy firm. “There’s a huge value in getting out there and getting the experience and finding out how you like to work,” said a program manager for an energy efficiency consortium. Most of all, panelists agreed, don’t panic about finding “the perfect job.”
MIT Global Education & Career Development (GECD) and the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) co-sponsored the event, which was moderated by Amanda Peters of GECD Career Services and attended by several dozen undergraduates, graduate students and post-docs.
A diverse panel of players
Eerik Hantsoo is an engineer at 1366 Technologies, Inc., a photovoltaics start-up with roots at MIT that commercializes new methods of making silicon wafers for photovoltaics. As an undergraduate at Stanford, Hantsoo built and raced solar-powered cars before spending a year on hardware development at a West Coast start-up. He then came to MIT for a master’s in chemical engineering, completing his degree just in time to help his advisor commercialize the lab’s inventions. “I was expected to have a diverse set of skills and I was asked to juggle a lot at once,” said Hantsoo, who is now concentrating on process development and hardware.
Jennifer Pedro is vice president of industrial processes for Alstom Power, a Swiss-based global engineering firm focused on power industries. Working at different times on power plants, service, mergers and acquisitions--and, after earning an MBA--in management, has made Pedro feel like she has worked for a series of completely different companies. ”It was a very good experience for me to get a well-rounded view of the power market,” she said.
Kara Rodgers, senior program manager for natural gas programs at the nonprofit Consortium for Energy Efficiency, works with utilities mandated to offer energy efficiency programs. The only non-engineer on the panel, Rodgers majored in anthropology and evolutionary biology before she realized she was not destined to become a scientist. After marketing flooring to Home Depot and others, she earned an MBA and worked as a marketing and strategy manager for an industrial gas company before she happened upon her current organization.
Thomas Jarvi is chief technology officer for MIT spinoff Sun Catalytix, which aims to generate an inexpensive renewable energy supply from sunlight and water. Previously, he was director of technology development for United Technologies, where he headed an 80-person unit doing technical development for fuel cells. “One of my favorite things to do is to figure out how things go terribly wrong,” he said.
Vivek Mohta works to create a “greener energy future for the Commonwealth” as director of energy markets at the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. Helping local utilities offer rebates and putting federal stimulus money to work locally are among the department’s recent accomplishments. Mohta, who held an energy and national security policy fellowship in Washington and worked for an energy policy analysis think tank, was drawn back to Massachusetts in 2008 by the “vibrant cluster of clean technology” companies.
Clear writing, curiosity and leadership
The panelists weighed in on key qualities they seek in job candidates: the ability to write clearly; global experience for jumping into today’s fast-growing markets outside North America; public speaking; the ability to analyze and understand science and the process of commercialization; and leadership ability.
Jarvi, who is currently hiring, noted “the most important attribute is inquisitiveness rather than a set of skills.” He likes to see candidates who are curious about how things work and have an aptitude for understanding new things.
Mohta, who’s also hiring, said he needs people to work in program or grant project management as well as analysts who “dig into market data and analyze market trends and market failures, navigating different stakeholders and different sources in situations where you might have a lack of clarity about who’s in charge but still need to achieve the end goal.”
Hantsoo looks for “fearlessness,” and the ability to work hands-on on real systems. “I’m surprised by how many electrical engineering majors don’t know to solder two pieces of wire together,” he said. He needs people with a diversity of skills and the ability to pick up new skills quickly, like an electrical engineer who can do chemistry. “The other thing that serves you well is if you have worked on projects that went beyond (the length of) one class,” he said. Pedro’s firm hires people right out of college and provides programs and a conducive atmosphere for going back to get a master’s degree.
Jarvi said the word “development” is more accurate than “research” in relation to industry. “The days of basic research in industry are largely gone. If you want to do pure research, the academic route is the way to go. In industry, you get to work on teams focused on solving a particular problem,” he said.
Of the people Mohta hired recently, seven had bachelor’s degrees, one had a law degree and one an MBA. “A lot of what we need doesn’t require specialized expertise in certain areas, but the ability to get things done,” he said. “Around clean energy and clean technology there’s a unique opportunity over the next few years, and there may be an opportunity cost to doing more training. Unless you really think you need expertise, err on the side of going and doing something.” He said it’s unlikely that a job in industry would mesh perfectly with “what you work on for your PhD.”
On the other hand, Rodgers, who also is hiring, looks for candidates with graduate degrees or a lot of experience in the business or policy sides of the energy field. She suggested considering “how you want to think” when contemplating different jobs—in her field, she said, an interest in strategizing is important.
Pedro said the power industry has undergone a transformation over last few years that requires research into new technologies and opportunities. Her firm is committed to adding alternative energy sources into the mix.
Big corporations or small firms?
The pros and cons of big vs. small companies? Jarvi liked having plenty of engineers at his disposal to jump on problems at United Technologies but felt that the size of the organization ”invoked inertia relative to decisions.”
“I’ve come to the conclusion that small companies are important catalysts to change in the energy field,” he said. “It’s been very interesting to transition from a big company to a small company, and it’s been incredibly enriching,” Jarvi said.
“The advantages and disadvantages of working at a big company are that I have had the opportunity to travel all over world, there are a vast amount of resources and a lot of expertise available to support R&D efforts, but it is not as speedy as a start-up,” Pedro said.
Pedro advised graduates to take a step back and “look at how you would like to work for 40 to 50 years. Do you like structure? A fast-paced environment or a more regular schedule? Do you like to interface with customers or be buried back in a lab?” If you can identify which one of those is “you,” you’ll know what‘s going to make you feel fulfilled, she said.
Jarvi noted that the ultimate mission of many working in energy—to change society’s behavior--is tough. “If you want a career in energy, do it because it’s really important to you,” he said.