Discovering she wanted to be an electrical engineer was a jolt to Jackie Peer's system; she now strives to lure more women and men to join her field
Electric fences provided Jackie Peer some of her most visceral lessons about power.
She grew up around farms and horses in rural Asotin County, avoiding the fences, said Peer, now an electrical engineer at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories. "I absolutely detested being shocked."
It wasn't until she was a young adult thinking she was on her way to becoming a surgeon that she began to realize how multifaceted power was.
She treated patients using electric stimuli at a physicians' office and became fascinated with the equipment, said Peer, director of SEL University. "It was interesting where it was something that could be so painful or even devastating or life threatening, that you could use that stimuli to actually treat and heal."
That experience prompted Peer to pursue engineering, not medicine, in a career where her work changes lives around the world by helping make electricity more reliable and bettering people's understanding of power.
In developed countries, electricity is a necessity, not a luxury, especially considering how transportation and other key infrastructure fails when storms disable power, Peer said. "There's all these cascading effects that happen."
Business Profile spoke to Peer about SEL University, how she became an engineer and how to get more young women to go into science- and math-related fields.
Business Profile: What does SEL University do?
Jackie Peer: SEL University is the for-profit education arm of our organization. We train engineers, technicians and others so they know how to apply SEL products. That includes the protection of the primary apparatus as well as control, monitoring, communications and of course security, which is a really big topic these days. We train on theory too. The training that's on fundamentals and theory does not go into our products. To date, we've trained 36,000 people worldwide. That's in 70 different countries. All of our employees are able to take our courses free of charge.
BP: What's your most popular course?
JP: Our most popular course is a five-day, 40-hour course called power systems theory. It's equivalent to an entire semester that we teach in a week. So they get some awesome reference material they get to take back - two large binders, some compact discs and other reference materials. Employers send their new generation workforce, or somebody who needs to brush off the cobwebs, or people who changed job duties midway in their careers.
One reason it does so well is that a lot of the colleges and universities have down-scaled with their power programs in the last 10 years. You have all these electrical engineers who are coming into the industry with good strong basics, but they don't have the power systems emphasis. What we can do is be an asset to their employers by providing the fundamentals and theory, the training they didn't get in college, that they can apply to their job.
BP: How much is your training format changing as tech-savvy millennials enter the workforce?
JP: We have some web-based training and computer-based training. We're working hard to add more. We've upgraded such that customers can do training on their phone if they really want to. I've heard of some customers who are traveling. They've been holed up in a hotel. They have their head phones on, and they're doing their training. That's part of the flexibility and convenience of what we offer.
We have this large group of baby boomers that, maybe e-learning isn't their preference or priority. The millennials, they're taking over as far as the majority of our workforce or will. Their preference is to have more sound bites of training, broken up into modules, to be able to do it on demand. Maybe they want to do it at 11 p.m. or midnight.
BP: What more can you share about how you became an engineer?
JP: I never had somebody who said, "Hey Jackie, you should be an engineer." It wasn't a parent, a counselor, teacher or a friend.
I always have been a strong-willed person, and I worked in other jobs that were very male dominated. I even had a stint where I did heavy equipment operating in the summers for Poe Asphalt. If it's something I want to do, I just go do it. I don't let someone insinuate that I can't.
I'm the first to say, if you're really, really good in math everyone thinks you should go into engineering, which is true. It's a great skill set to have. But math was never my strongest subject.
Engineering is tough. If it was easy, everybody would do it. There's some great opportunities and a huge need for qualified, skilled engineers in industry. With that said, there were some courses that were really tough, and you had to put in many, many hours of work outside the classroom.
BP: How did you overcome it?
JP: You work really hard. Practice, practice, practice. Ask for help. Lots of hours. Little sleep. Lots of coffee.
BP: Were there other skills that helped you compensate?
JP: I'm comfortable being around people. Being able to communicate and build relationships has been very beneficial for me.
BP: You advocate for young women going into math and science. What insight can you share?
JP: When you look at electrical engineering nationwide, about 11 percent of the workforce in electrical engineering is female. I think of it as an opportunity to attract and retain more females in that discipline.
I encourage parents to raise our girls to be strong and confident and know they can do whatever they want to, whether it's in science, technology, engineering and math or otherwise.
A lot of it is education. What I've learned is, if you can educate counselors and teachers, they're better equipped to speak to what is engineering. They can help guide those interested and capable people whether they're female or male into those fields.
Educating the parents is important as well. I've met a lot of engineering students who are first generation. They had parents who became educated in the opportunities in engineering. It opened their eyes to the possibilities for them.
Company: Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories
Job title: Director of SEL University, a for-profit division of the company that teaches classes on power system topics related and not related to its products.
Career history: Completed an internship with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Lower Granite and Little Goose dams; worked at Clearwater Paper. Joined SEL in 1996 as an application engineer. Has held 16 jobs at SEL with 10 bosses, including doing research and development management of distribution engineering for relays and controls, time and communications products, leading technical marketing functions and serving as regional sales and service director for the West region of the U.S.
Education: Graduate of Clarkston High School. Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Washington State University in Pullman.
Civic involvement: Member of the national steering committee for the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers, which has awarded more than 1,000 scholarships since 2011. Boys & Girls Clubs of Lewis-Clark Valley executive board member.
Family: Married with three children.
Hobbies: Power boating and fishing in Hells Canyon.
Williams may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2261.
Reprinted with permission of the Lewiston Tribune. Copyright 2016.
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