Key skills for the energy sector leaders of tomorrow

Steve Hicksby Steve Hicks, Associate Director for Education, Duke University Energy Initiative

Do you have to be able to convert BTUs to kilowatt-hours and write poetry to work in the energy sector? To many Duke students, it often seems like the energy industry requires a daunting combination of both technical and managerial skillsets. Further, the industry is so diverse, it can be hard for a student to understand what roles they are well suited for.

To get a better sense for the energy job market, I recently interviewed several Duke alumni who are working in different parts of the industry about skills that are critical for success. I sorted their responses generally into three categories including: knowledge and technical skills, professional workplace knowledge and skills, and professional attributes. These insights help students understand what skills to develop, and shed light on what knowledge we, as educators, can design into curricular and extracurricular offerings at Duke.

Knowledge and technical skills

In making the transition from student to employee, students will be more competitive if they have some or all of the following technical skills and knowledge: 1) knowledge of the energy industry, including unique characteristics, issues, and trends; 2) energy and environment systems awareness and systems thinking skills; 3) an understanding of economics, energy markets and the business context for specific industries within the sector; 4) financial and cost analysis skills (project finance, budgeting and cost management); 5) knowledge of regulatory policy that affects the energy sector, 6) research methods, and 7) statistics and data analysis skills including Excel software skills.

One survey respondent told me candidates “need to have an introduction to market structures in the U.S. and how power markets differ around the country—including public policy, regulation, and market factors and how power markets are unlike any other commodity markets for supply and demand. Different parts of the country ‘sell’ electricity differently.” Another stressed the importance of a strong analytical skill set: “We need people with experience who know how to analyze data.”

Professional workplace knowledge and skills

DSC_0052In addition to technical skills, students also need to demonstrate professional workplace knowledge and skills, which, according to some respondents, are the most difficult to find in today’s graduates. Employers say they are looking for problem-solving and critical thinking skills, teamwork and interdisciplinary or cross-functional collaboration skills, communication skills, stakeholder or customer management skills, and leadership and management skills. As one executive put it, “They need interdisciplinary teamwork and facilitation skills, an understanding of project management, and they need to be able to speak the language of the disciplines of the people so they can work with and understand their priorities and biases.”

Because so much academic curriculum focuses on technical content, students sometimes find it difficult to practice these skills. This is one of the reasons internships are important; they provide opportunities for students to develop these skills in a low-risk context. Experiential learning projects, like Duke’s Bass Connections in Energy projects, are another great way for students to cultivate these skills.

Professional attributes

Finally, a candidate’s success sometimes comes down more to personal drive and enthusiasm than to specific technical know-how. Our respondents were consistent in their advice that students should have a strong intellectual curiosity about the field and must be willing to persevere in the face of complex challenges. “It is important to have a passion for energy,” one CEO told me. “People have to be willing to roll up their sleeves and get the experience they need to operate effectively in our organization.” Another respondent said that, when hiring, his firm looks for a candidate who is “an independent self-starter, someone who is highly motivated. Curiosity and motivation are very important.”

Of course, it’s difficult to generalize across a sector as large and complex as the energy sector. There are roles for students in a wide range of disciplines—from engineering and economics to marketing, policy, law, and finance—with an equally diverse set of employer types. There are clearly technical skills that are necessary for some roles that aren’t needed for others. But across the board, an enthusiasm for energy, a good understanding of the sector’s unique issues and dynamics, and a willingness to jump in can go a long way. Back to our opening question: Do you have to be able to convert BTUs to kilowatt-hours and write poetry to work in the energy sector? No, maybe not, but waxing poetic about why you’re passionate about the energy industry and its challenges can be a good first step.