I have just returned from a major district energy conference in Seattle, the 105th Annual Conference of the International District Energy Association (IDEA). Since 1909, the IDEA has worked to advance the development of community energy, efficient thermal grids and combined heat and power in the US, Canada and around the world.
Every year, the incoming IDEA Chair is charged with the task of presenting a relevant theme for the coming year. Ken Smith, this year’s IDEA Chair and CEO of District Energy St. Paul (MN), has presented his theme, Inspiring the Next Generation. There could not be a more relevant topic at this time.
Statistics suggest over 50% of the people currently working in our industry are eligible to retire within the next eight years. We all know baby boomers are now reaching the age of retirement, but the numbers retiring in certain industries, including district energy, are staggering.
Some situations are urgent. One industry colleague running a district energy system at a college located in New York State recently reported to his Board of Governors that there are really only three people who fully understand the college’s energy system and they are all scheduled to retire in the next three years.
Time magazine defined Millennials as those born between 1980 and 2000. These young people between the ages of 15 and 35 are a few years into a career while some are just leaving high school. This is the group of young people we need to attract, train and mentor for our industry and our cities.
Various authors argue the character traits of the millennial generation. While some suggest this group typically displays a sense of entitlement and narcissism, the dominant view is that Millennials are civic-minded, confident, tolerant, and display a strong sense of community both locally and globally. It is this set of characteristics our industry must find and nurture.
So why would Millenials be attracted to a career in district energy? District energy systems play an important role in delivering sustainable and healthy urban centres. A district energy system delivers a significant environmental benefit lowering greenhouse gas emissions by over 50%. District energy provides critical resiliency to an urban centre affected by severe weather events. District energy provides a tool for cities to attract new business and keep the city vibrant and growing.
A career involved in advancing, engineering, building, or operating this essential infrastructure will satisfy the Millenials’ underlying desire to make a difference. It is essential that any millennial entering the workforce has an opportunity to be exposed to the varied education and job opportunities in our sector.
Markham District Energy has been doing what it can locally since 2010. Our annual Sustainability Bursary program encourages and rewards graduating high school students who have distinguished themselves through academic excellence and participation in environmental extracurricular, volunteer and community service activities. As part of the selection process, students must research district energy, Markham’s investment in district energy and how district energy supports the City’s sustainability objectives. Finally, the students tour a district energy plant to see it in action.
We hope our bursary winners (and their friends and family) will be educated, enlightened and encouraged. Some may decide to create a career path with the goal of advancing district energy in Markham, Canada or elsewhere around the world. We hope this is the case and we expect to see some job openings within the next eight years.