Power Industry People: Finding Top Talent in the Military

Last month, POWER published an article written by Senior Associate Editor Darrell Proctor that detailed the challenges power companies have been facing when trying to attract high-quality recruits in the increasingly competitive labor market for engineers and other workers with technical backgrounds (see “Groups Grapple with Labor Logistics as Energy Evolves” in the February 2022 issue). In this issue, I’m going to touch on one place qualified candidates can be found to fill some of those high-tech positions—the military.

This article includes input from William Newell, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Will recently transitioned from the military to a job in the power sector. I can personally relate to Will’s experience, having myself gone through the process many years ago after serving 13 years in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear power program. Yet, Will’s story is unique and provides details about what worked for him. It offers an inside look at the job search process and shows how military experience prepares people to step right in and take charge of projects in the civilian world.

A Firm Foundation with Increasing Responsibility

“I focused my first 10 years on aircraft maintenance, dealing with high-powered defensive missile systems. I had a blast doing it. I loved working with them—just being around a lot of large equipment. I felt like I was always doing something important,” Newell told me. “It got to the point that, after working on them, I wanted to be the person who influenced those systems and the changes that they could have. So, I switched over into a research and development position the last 10 years of my career.”

Through his career, Newell worked on almost every aircraft that was in the Air Force’s inventory, except fighters. He did a lot of aircraft system testing in his job and found that he really enjoyed solving power problems he encountered. Many of these involved dealing with batteries or with the ground power generators for the aircraft. “We call them Hobarts,” Newell said.

One of the biggest projects he was in charge of near the end of his career involved testing a new generator the Air Force was considering purchasing. “We basically had to go around to every single aircraft in the inventory and test to see if this generator could support the aircraft under its heaviest load,” explained Newell. “I was like, ‘This is crazy! We get to press all these buttons and basically try to make this thing fail.’ ”

It was that experience that led Newell to pursue a degree in project management and consider a career in the power sector. In addition to his valuable training and on-the-job experience gained while enlisted in the Air Force, he left the military with an associate’s degree in Avionics Technology, a bachelor’s degree in Project Management, and a Level II certification in Lifecycle Logistics from the Defense Acquisition University.

Amy West, recruiting team leader with Orion Talent, the nation’s largest military recruitment firm, told POWER, “The biggest skillset that we’re asked to find is technical talent. The military offers the best technical training program, in my opinion, in the world. Nothing prepares you like the military does to work on technical systems.” West would know, having herself been a gas turbine electrician in the U.S. Navy.

Making the Transition

Yet, even with his significant training and formal education, as well as the hands-on experience he had, Newell felt the anxiety many people experience when leaving the military. “I was extremely nervous,” Newell recalled. He had “a great support system of friends and family,” all of whom were assuring him that there were jobs available and he was “desired by the industry,” but that didn’t instantly calm his fears.

What helped, however, was speaking with his brother-in-law, who had transitioned from the U.S. Army to the civilian world. In the process of his employment search, Newell’s brother-in-law had attended a job fair where he connected with Orion. Although he felt somewhat out of place initially, because all the other candidates in the room were officers in the military while he was enlisted, Orion’s staff made Newell’s brother-in-law feel welcome and “treated him really well.” In the end, Orion helped get him a job that he really liked, and he has since been promoted. His brother-in-law’s experience convinced Newell to seek Orion’s help too.

One thing Newell wasn’t sure of, though, was how his experience would translate to a job outside of the military. He knew he could work on airplanes, of course, but he was ready for a change, so the question was, what else could he do. “In my head, I had never made the correlation to the job that I’m currently working,” he said. “I didn’t know that data centers, power plants, and everyone had these large battery backup systems that require constant maintenance and such heavy support that there is a need for a technician like myself to come service them all the time.”

That’s where Orion really provided value. “We usually start when a new candidate comes into our system with an initial screening call,” West explained. “We get to know the candidate. We learn about what they did in the military—how they’re looking to leverage those skills in the private sector. And then from there, we try to make suggestions and present opportunities based on a combination of skillset and interest, and we use a lot of different techniques to narrow it down.”

To learn more about Newell’s transition from the Air Force to the power sector, listen to the full interview, which is episode #111 of The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:

For more power podcasts, visit The POWER Podcast archives.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.

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