Author Topic: Looking for Work - why I would choose to be a Power Engineer Now  (Read 2422 times)

Offline Joseph

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I started working in Power Engineering as a fluke. While washing dishes in a hotel in Gold River, I wandered down to the Gold River Pulp Mill and applied for a job. Why not? I heard they were making a ton of cash every paycheck. Through a stroke of luck I was put in the Steam and Recovery department. Working in the pulp mills in those days was what the oil and gas jobs up north are today. Physical work, sometimes hard physical work, and big bucks. You've all heard the recent urban legends about Syncrude employees paying off $10,000 dollar Visa bills in a month, or owning a place or two in Kelowna. Didn't Suncor control room operators make 2 - 3 hundred thousand a year? Or more?

Similar to the oil and gas industry, the pulp mills on Vancouver Island in the seventies paid well. I've said humorously that it's a good thing I drank so much or I wouldn't have known what to do with all that money (I hear I had a good time). I decided to get a fourth class certificate because a fellow worker with the next job up wasn't running up the stairs and poking holes in the black liquor recovery boilers all day like I was. I thought that wandering out and collecting boiler water samples and testing them was a lot more fun (or at least working as a spoutman was damned harder). So, I got a fourth.

It was something to fall back on. I actually thought I might be a writer. I had been published in a few books relatively early in life, and I figured I had some skills. Psychology seems like an interesting career, but in my experience a psych degree and five bucks will get you a nice latte at Starbucks. I had better look around in the meantime and get some quick cash coming in, so a fourth class, and couple of years later, a third, would give me a good shot at some decent cash while I was working at other professions that would take a while to get established. Like I said, something to fall back on - and I did.
For forty years.

Power Engineering has been good to me. I've had a varied career, worked in ten or twelve different plants, made great money. I've done a lot of things. Some of them memorable, like working at a hospital with amazing people where I was a shift engineer, mechanic and eventually a Chief. Now *that* was great education that went from operations to politics. I also worked in a tech company that made hydrogen power plants, and as a field service engineer worked all over the world. Now I'm an instructor at a college, which at this stage in my life I consider to be the best job on the power engineering planet. It hasn't been all wonderful, like the time I came into work on shift in a sawmill power house in Port Alberni and was told "you're in the yard". I had been laid off that day apparently, but there was still some work available if I wanted - working on the green chain, which was physically very demanding. Do that for a few months and you will appreciate that nice control room job you just got booted out of. Sure there have been some lows but generally mostly it was pretty fine work.

That's why I would recommend being a Power Engineer even it today's environment, which appears to be a pretty tough market to get work in, with all the oil and gas layoffs in the Canadian energy and commodity areas we traditionally work. In fact, as I've written about in previous posts, it does not look good - not only for us, but all trades and support services (which is, sadly, *a lot* of people in Canada). That said, why would I recommend that you should consider a career in Power Engineering when there is one of the worst job markets since the eighties regarding our type of work?

Here's why I would recommend being a power engineer right now:

  • There is still work out there. It's definitely harder to get, but there are lots of jobs to consider, in lots of different plants and locations. Canada is still required by law to hire power engineers for operating pressure vessels. Every large building and business - big hotels, big shopping centers, refrigeration plants like dairy and meat processing and ice rinks, large complexes like Electronic Arts or BCIT or Rogers Sugar or... many more, all need power engineers. There is work out there. You may have to travel to another provinces, you may have to get help with your resume (the most important document you may ever write) and practice your interview skills and consider adding to your education - I didn't say it would be easy - and you may need to build your connections - friends of friends, LinkedIn, or volunteering just about anywhere looks good on the resume and promotes great references, go back to school and promote positive rapport with your instructors... whatever it takes to get work. It's good work, and there is still work out there.
  • Even in this economic slump, there will eventually be work out there. Things get good, and then they can hit lows, and then they cycle back to the good days. It will happen. We are in a slump right now - everyone in energy is in one it seems, and it can be distressing to apply for job after job and never get a reply... but it will get better. You're not alone when you discover that you might have to take other work for a while, or move in with a friend or (egads) back with the parents, but it will get better, and you'll be ready. Lots of people will be retiring, and plants will start building again. You'll be prepared.
  • If you're a student, things could be different when you graduate. Let's say you just started. When you applied (probably two or three years ago, judging by the wait lists to get in) the future for power engineering looked rosy. A year of school - ten months, really - and you were looking at twenty bucks to start, probably more (and a ton more up in the promised lands of Fort McMurray) - and now it looks grim. You're wondering if you've made a mistake? Just remember things could change. They will change (see above) so keep at it. Two months, six months, even a year or more (look, I'm not sugar coating this) things will change. The government can change policies, the Saudi's can run out of money and cut back on oil production, embargo's can show up. China can reverse their economic decline and start pulling in natural resources again. Any number of scenarios can change things in a few months, just like in a few short months the price of oil dropped 60%. Canada may create 'incentives' for business to ramp back up again. You'll be ready.
  • It looks great on the resume for any job you apply for. Right now you can't get a job as a power engineer? Damn. You and a lot of people can't get work -power engineers, tradesmen, people with degrees, people who supply heavy duty equipment... they all have declining employment stories. It's hard out there, if you follow the papers (the websites). Alright then, apply for a related field. Look for any job that has similar skills - installing sprinkler systems (you took piping as a part of your courses); Home Hardware or Rona may have some work (you have mechanical training) or a company that builds forklifts is looking for someone; a tech company is hiring entry level people to make something; an instrumentation company is hiring an assistant for building and calibrating controls. You have training and even experience in controls, systems, air compression, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, mechanic... employers are looking for people like you in related fields. Yes, it may not be what you want (and, who knows, it might be a door into a great job). A job in a related career or even any job is better than no job. Being a power engineer makes you way more marketable than someone with no credentials. Just indicating that you're willing to educate yourself to improve worth makes you a standout compared to all the other people with a high school education and fantastic Facebook skills.
  • You can look for work that will eventually lead into a power engineering job. As a chief in the hospital I was working in, a vacancy for a fourth came up. At the time, there was (like now) a low point in energy production. There were lots of fourths with great experience and extra skills, and I could hire a top notch individual now that the oil fields had been shut down (in the eighties the government enacted the National Energy Program, which resulted in the wells in Alberta being capped and everyone went home). I was anticipating a wealth of prospects applying for the power plant job. And, there was! Some great applicants sent their resumes, but I couldn't hire any of them. Apparently there was this one guy working in the hospital in housekeeping that had a fourth class ticket! He was already in the system and the policy was to hire from within before hiring anyone else. The truth was the guy had a great attitude, but he was green as grass and had to be trained for quite a while. There were some great mechanics (I needed a mechanic) and even people with trades tickets eager to get in, but... I had to hire the in house guy. It was what it was. Think about that as you're looking for work - plan ahead. If you're working in a factory that has a power plant, what are the rules for hiring from within your workforce?
  • An education - any education - is rewarding. Power Engineering is a one or two year course that is worthy. At BCIT I tell my students that they have just spent about, say, seven grand after books and tuition are paid. Not twenty grand for a university course - which will be a minimum over the four years they would have to put in to get the credentials. All things considered, the price is right. You can go to school for just one or two years and come out with a career that has a big future if you want, lots of possibilities, and it's pretty useful. I'm not so positive about having a degree in art appreciation or having great philosophical depth as your strong points for employment. You become a 'handy kind of person'. Fixin' things is your thing, whether it's re-plumbing the sinks or installing a hot water tank in the basement or changing the plugs on your car. You can save a lot of money in your life as a power engineer (I fixed my own cars for forty years and saved enormous amounts of money, and most of the work was pretty easy, like swapping out a rad or a starter). However, the real reward for becoming a power engineer was the sense of personal merit, the pride I felt as I went from a guy washing dishes to an operator of multi-million dollar plants, or supervising a crew, or managing an operation - and getting well paid for it. I've hosed a lot of pulp and shoveled a lot of hog with a pitchfork, but I've also been a chief of a couple plants, been the mechanical troubleshooting expert, and worked with a lot of people and more, and that felt great. Does it matter what you do, as long as it is rewarding and gives you freedom to pursue other areas in your life? If you're just starting out, or changing careers, then if you've chosen power engineering I think it will be as good for you as it was for me. Even if it only becomes, as I've mentioned above, something to fall back on, then you've done a good thing for yourself. I've seen many lives changed by graduating out of power engineering. This could be you.
There are lots of types of work for you, and Power Engineering - in which your specialty in pressure vessels translates also into another specialty as a generalist; your skills as one or more of the three different types of power engineers - an operator, a mechanic, and a manager - will serve you well in many areas in your life, and is applicable to just about any career you can imagine. It's not for everyone - if you struggle with shiftwork, or if you don't like working in mechanical conditions, this may not be for you. For the rest of us, it's great work, for the reasons I've mentioned above. I'd recommend anyone to be a power engineer, now and in the future.
« Last Edit: Jan 03, 2016, 13:16 by Jason R »
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Offline Ytterbium

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"There is still work out there" says the guy who retired years ago. Here's a thought, you try applying for jobs with the same experience and qualifications you had when you were just starting out. After you've put out a couple hundred resumes and wasted hours and hours on online applications that go straight to the garbage, you come back and let us know where all these jobs are. There's nothing more infuriating than a guy who wins the lottery telling us that "anyone can do it, and if you haven't, it's because you suck..."
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Offline Joseph

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I can appreciate your distress at applying for jobs - many jobs - and not getting a response. I have wasted many an hour myself applying for jobs in Vancouver when I was living in Edmonton years ago.
I have noticed - and have commented on this a few times - that jobs are much harder to come by in these low oil price times. In the Power Engineer's Annonymous (yes, it's spelled wrong, it's kind of a thing) I've noticed that many people are in the same boat as you are, and they are frustrated. The combination of a saturated market and very few jobs available make it tough to get a job. This is one of the reasons Jason and I started this website - to help students get work - and you'll notice that Jason has a lot of jobs all being picked out automatically and being shown on our website, for anyone that is looking for work. I've also offered tips and instructions on what might help a fellow engineer find a job in these trying times.

I am wondering who you are referring to regarding "the guy who retired years ago". If it was me, I thought I made it pretty clear that it's hard to get work out there, and you have to work for it, and there are a lot of frustrated people out there - good, capable, qualified people that are struggling to find work. I'm just saying "don't give up hope". It is unfortunate you may have perceived my support to keep trying as an admonishment that "it's your fault". That was absolutely not my intention. I am not sure what you meant by being retired, I am still working and will be for a few years, and while I feel very fortunate to be an instructor, it's not anything like retirement, I find it hard work sometimes - but very good work, and truly rewarding.

I would comment that, yes, there is still work out there, but it's hard to get, and competition is stiff. I agree with you, the lucky guy that gets work may be a little short sighted to mention that "anyone can do it, and if you haven't it's because you suck...". In my job I am fortunate to be in contact with many power engineers looking for work and others hiring power engineers, and I can say that the vast majority of people who get hired in these times are... grateful.
All you can do is keep trying. As mentioned, there are some tips that might help on this website. However, I think it's tough right now, it's not getting significantly better any time soon, and the fortunate engineer that gets work will have had to work hard just to get the interview. Good luck, you'll need it.
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