Mike Griffin: Future-proofing australia’s power engineers

Mike Griffin
Mike Griffin

An electrical engineer by profession and an executive manager for close to a decade, Mike Griffin has dedicated his career to the Australian power industry. Now, as the Australian Power Institute’s chief executive, Mike is committed to helping today’s graduates become tomorrow’s game-changers.

Considering the Australian power engineering industry is experiencing significant challenges – whether that be restructuring pressures, budget restraints, skill shortages or capacity limitations – Mike Griffin is refreshingly optimistic.

And as the chief executive and chief operating officer of the country’s peak body for promoting power engineering to young Australians, Mike’s enthusiasm looking forward is encouraging.

“The energy industry is going through its greatest change since electricity was invented. The challenges are exciting, particularly for young people because they are going to have a much broader range of roles they can go into, and many will have the opportunity to move from one role to another throughout their career,” Mike says.

“I only wish I was a young person again, because the graduates of today really will play a key role in determining the future of our society.”

Representing 35 major national power companies, the Australian Power Institute (API) aims to promote power engineering to young Australians and to help universities provide world-class education to get graduates ‘work ready’. More importantly, the not-for-profit organisation helps prepare graduates for the challenge of creating Australia’s new energy future.

“Australia’s unique energy challenges means solutions cannot be merely imported from overseas. Rather, it’s essential we, and I’m talking about the industry in general, focus on facilitating, encouraging and promoting education, research and training in the electricity supply industry,” Mike says.

Mike is quick to point out failure to attract, develop and retain the best engineering talent in the country could have dire consequences.

“If we don’t equip young people with the right skills and the right attitude, Australia could fail to meet its objectives of lower carbon emissions and to supply competitive and reliable electricity to underpin the economy.

“This country is facing the greatest transformation in the past century of its energy system by moving to a low carbon, cost-effective, reliable energy industry – and critical to achieving this will be attracting and educating highly-skilled power engineering professionals.”

After eight years in operation, the API is now backed by key players in the national power industry. Members cover all sectors of the power industry, including generation, transmission and distribution utilities, manufacturers and suppliers, consultants, and end-users. The companies themselves range from major international powers, such as GDF Suez – the largest private generation company in the world – through to Australian-owned companies and organisations that are selling into an international market, such as Wilson Transformers.

With a key objective being to ensure power engineering graduates receive a world-class education experience, the API also partners with a number of professional organisations, including the Engineering Education Australia, the Institution of Engineering and Technology Power Academy, and Engineers Without Boarders.

“We’ve provided more than $3.5 million of funding over 19 Australian universities, which has been matched by the universities themselves. This has led to 55 projects that all look to improve teaching and learning so students have some really good foundation skills to begin their work in an industrial environment.”

The API has even received a federal government grant, close to one million dollars, to develop the national power engineering undergraduate curriculum.

“With this funding, we’ve provided 20 modules of industry-rich resources that are freely available to academics across Australia to use in producing their undergraduate subject units for third- and fourth-year students,” Mike says.

“And we will continue to bring industry members together to add value to these modules in terms of getting case studies and real life examples.”

For the past five years, bursary programs have also been used to secure smart and enthusiastic students in the power engineering pipeline. There are currently 160 bursary holders scattered throughout Australia, each of whom have been awarded $8000 to be distributed throughout their degree. And arguably of more value, is the paid employment component of the bursary with API member companies over three university holiday periods.

“The summer work placements hold a value price tag in the order of $20,000. However the real value for students lies in the ability of the bursary students to see the practical application of their university courses, and to see what the industry actually does, as opposed to theoretical studies.”

The program is clearly resonating with students, because Mike received a record 370 applications for 50 bursary positions this year, compared with 160 for 40 bursary positions in 2007.

“We had a phenomenal response this year, so we know students are hearing our message loud and clear; that power engineering is an exciting industry to be involved with now and into the future.”

The API has also extended its reach to target high school and primary school students, with a specific aim to highlight the relevancy of math and science.

“The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering did some work through the STELR Project, which found kids weren’t choosing math and science subjects because they couldn’t see the relevance to their everyday life,” Mike says.

“But we’re talking about a generation of young people who think milk comes from a carton! So we’ve reached out to students to demonstrate that science has a practical and exciting future. For example, we’ve partnered with the Academy to get renewable technology kits, including solar and wind generation kits, into the curriculum programs of grade nine and ten students across 300 schools.

While it will take time for these early-teens to reach the workforce, Mike says he, and the greater industry, are prepared to wait.

“Our members see the API is trying to achieve a medium to longer term objective. They see that the architecture of our industry is becoming very different from what it has been over the last 100 years.”

Indeed, while the power engineers of the past have often been generalists, managers and integrators, you only have to look at current university courses to realise tomorrow’s engineers will also need additional skills.

“Between now and 2030, and even up to 2050, we are really going to see a major transformation in the role of the engineer graduate; a role that will become increasingly niche, and that will require them to comprehend and implement complex strategies and technology,” Mike says.

More specifically Mike identifies three roles for engineer graduates in the future. The first will be the engineer as specialist; recognising the need for world-class technical experts. The second will be the engineer as the integrator; reflecting the need to operate and manage across boundaries, whether that be technical or organisational, in a complex business environment. And thirdly – and arguably most importantly – there will be the engineer as the change agent.

“This engineer will provide a critical role in proving the creativity, innovation and leadership needed to guide the industry to a successful future,” Mike says.

To get to this point, Mike says Australia’s power engineering sector should follow the example of systematic innovation funding in the UK and throughout Europe.

“Here in the Australian energy industry, we seem to have too much disparate and insignificant work in the innovation area, and I’d like to work with the other industry associations and our members to see if we can get the government and the policy makers to provide the right incentives so the industry can work with manufacturers and universities to stimulate more innovation.”

“At the end of the day, we have a community that doesn’t want to see price increases, and at the same time we want to see sustainable low-carbon outcomes for the future. No one can argue this will require a lot of innovation.”

Nonetheless, the Australian power engineering industry seems ready, and willing, to jump on board. The API has grown from eight members to 35 members in just five years.

“We have strength as a collective. As individual companies and organisations, our sum is much greater than the addition of our parts. If every member went and did what the API does by individually – for example, collating resources, promoting best practice and giving students that head start – then we wouldn’t have one strong, unified voice.”

The API are clearly leveraging this power. The organisation made a comprehensive submission to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee at the beginning of 2012, which outlined the key objectives for the organisation, its achievements over the past five years, and recommendations on important actions to take into the future. Upon the reports release in July this year, Mike was pleased to see the Senate refer to the work of the API on a number of occasions.

“In one area, the Senate stated the API bursary program is an excellent example of the type of paid work experience that should be available to many more engineering students in many more engineering related industries,” Mike says.

“The report acknowledged the API bursary program represents best practice, which was confirmation for the API and our members that our visions for the Australia’s power engineering industry are on track.”

“We’re not the only ones who know it; it’s common knowledge now that we must provide the pipeline for future power engineers to enter the industry. This is how we can future-proof the industry, and our society relies on it.”