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Energy degrees fuel the boom

Colleges let you specialize in renewables

Mar. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Marine reservist Nigel Bliss in the Oregon Institute of Technology's Power and Motor lab with a fuel cell.
Marine reservist Nigel Bliss in the Oregon Institute of Technology's Power and Motor lab with a fuel cell. (Bill Goloski/Oregon Institute of Technology)
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For Marine Corps Reserve Sgt. Nigel Bliss, military work as an electrical systems technician and generator mechanic has been a natural starting point for a career in power distribution. To that end, he’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in renewable energy engineering and electrical engineering at Oregon Institute of Technology.

Renewable energy is a no-brainer.

“It is just such an up-and-coming field — that’s really where all our technology is headed,” Bliss said.

The electrical engineering concentration is the workhorse of the energy industry, the basic entry qualification for a vast range of positions.

“It’s kind of like the go-to degree, and there are hundreds of other things you can do with an electrical engineering degree, too. I could work on circuits and microcontrollers for Intel. There are a lot of options.”

Bliss does a lot of math, a lot of physics and a lot of hands-on work in the lab. The engineering end of the industry is very much about doing, and careers along these lines will be heavily weighted toward practical experience. Did we mention a lot of math?

A fair wind

Jeremiah Ward sees which way the wind is blowing, and he wants a piece of that action.

A former Army sergeant, Ward headed off to school at Redstone College in Broomfield, Colo., after leaving the service in 2012. He’s chasing an associate degree in occupational science with a focus in wind energy technology.

“I’ve always liked working with my hands, and I don’t mind climbing 300 feet in the air,” he said.

That is just what he’ll be doing when he goes to work on the wind turbines that promise to be the backbone of the sustainable energy movement.

“It’s an industry that has some security to it and one that I could find in my home state of Wyoming,” he said. “There are three sites within sight of my hometown.”

The degree program cuts a wide swath — electricity, digital electronics, mechanical systems and technology systems specific to wind.

“There are a lot of moving parts on a turbine. There is a lot of maintenance involved in keeping them running efficiently at a high level,” said campus president Glenn Wilson.

Hot jobs

Solar is another hot ticket among those looking to get into green energy. Top jobs, according to, include:

Solar rooftop installer: A hands-on job; you’ll install solar power systems on homes and businesses.

Solar sales: You may be telemarketing or going door-to-door to drum up business. It typically doesn’t require a degree.

Solar consultant or solar auditor: You perform site visits to assess the feasibility and cost of a solar installation, design documents and obtain all necessary permits.

Solar installation electrician: You put the electrical systems in place, connecting solar systems to the panel grid. You’ll typically need a state electrician’s license, and some companies also require a North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners certification.

Solar PV engineer/designer: These engineers design large-scale solar installations such as ground-mounted arrays for large solar farms and large rooftop-mounted arrays for commercial buildings.

Not everyone in energy digs wells or lays pipelines. Consider the range of jobs on offer at job site

Vice president of land: Buys land for exploration, researches land titles, puts together purchase agreements. Requires a bachelor of science in petroleum land management.

Senior geologist: Researches and analyzes data to help the company identify and develop promising projects. Keeps the company current on emerging technologies. Requires a bachelor’s or master’s in geosciences or geology.

Production/operations engineer: Designs pumping systems, installs and maintains components in the field, plans and oversees drilling operations. Requires a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Starting pay

Annual salary offers by college major according to the Colorado School of Mines 2010-2011 Career Center Annual Report:

■Chemical engineering: $63,879

■Civil engineering: $55,634

■Electrical engineering: $58,031

■Mechanical engineering: $61,859

■Geology and geological engineering: $57,193

■Mathematics and computer science: $59,447

■Metallurgy and material science: $59,872

■Mining engineering: $62,742

Energy MBA degrees

The website looks at employment data, available curriculum concentrations, school rankings by third parties and proximity to local companies pertaining to the industry to formulate its “Top Business Schools for a Career in Energy and Natural Resources.” The U.S. schools on the list and available degrees:

■University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business: MBA in Energy and Clean Technology.

■Texas A&M University Mays Business School: No official concentration, but nearby oil companies recruit heavily from the school.

■University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business: MBA concentration in energy finance.

■Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business: Located in a global energy hub (Houston), the school offers an energy specialization and a club that hosts energy-related networking events.

■Duke University Fuqua School of Business: Concentration in Energy and the Environment.

Match your skills

Still fresh out of the gate, sustainable technologies are driving both innovation and demand in the booming energy industry. New techniques such as fracking push our ability to acquire natural gas, and plain ol’ petroleum never goes out of style.

Not sure which energy-industry field is right for you? Try GetIntoEnergy’s military occupational specialty translator at

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Join trending discussions in the military's #1 professional community. See what members like yourself have to say from across the DoD.

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