By the time he finished college with an engineering degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Mark Pohl had banked some eye-catching experiences that would make any job seeker’s resume pop.
Piloted a remote-control submarine. Inspected nuclear fuel.
Pohl wasn’t sure what to expect in 2004 when he started at OPPD as an intern, and later a co-op program participant. But the work led him to a widely varied, 17-year career that still excites him today.
“I’ve just absolutely loved it,” said Pohl, who now works as OPPD’s programs & planning manager for Utility Operations. “I get to collaborate with employees across the district, and each day brings a new set of challenges and opportunities. My internship and co-op experiences prepared me for numerous roles within our utility. I encourage as many young engineers as I can to think about careers in public power.”
Every year, OPPD offers more than a dozen internships and co-ops to give college students a taste of life in public power. For many, it’s a pathway to a rewarding, full-time career.
The utility hired 19 students last year for internships, professional co-ops and other programs, according to OPPD’s Human Capital business unit. Students and recent graduates worked alongside engineers, line technicians, substation workers and other utility professionals that showed them their trade.
When Jaden Brouse started as a line technician intern last year at OPPD’s Papillion Service Center, he figured he’d be doing a lot of grunt work.
But shortly after he arrived, Brouse found himself learning from, and working side-by-side with, seasoned line workers who viewed him as just another coworker, albeit with less experience. His classroom experience at Metropolitan Community College came to life in real-world situations.
Brouse helped set up potheads, a type of insulated electrical terminal that connects power lines to padmount transformers, which in turn make electricity usable in homes. He learned firsthand about switching orders in electrical work. He rode up in a bucket to work on de-energized electrical equipment.
“I was surprised, to be honest,” said Brouse, who now works as an apprentice line worker in Kansas City. “I definitely expected to be treated like an intern. But I wasn’t put on a low rung. I was treated like everybody else. They let me get my hands on as much as they could.”
OPPD’s internship program for line workers has helped the utility identify some highly successful candidates for full-time careers, said Aaron Mercer, manager of OPPD’s Papillion Service Center, who interviews and helps oversee interns. OPPD plans to have nine interns this summer, split among the utility’s three service centers.
“It’s really important that these interns know they’re being interviewed daily for the next three months of their internship,” Mercer said. “They have to leave a good impression for us to continue our relationship with that person.”
Mercer said interns perform a lot of work similar to first-year apprentices. They stock trucks, ensure their crew has ice and water available and provide whatever help is needed. Apprentices often become their mentors.
Interns won’t do any “hot” work that involves live electrical wires, but Mercer said OPPD still gives them plenty of hands-on experience.
“We want to get them into a situation where they can get their hands dirty,” he said. “If a crew’s going to be doing hot work and the intern is just watching, we’ll let them do that for maybe a day. But we want them to be busy and learning. We don’t want them standing around too much.”
Most line technician interns are students at Metro Community College or Northeast Community College, but Mercer said OPPD is working to expand its network of partner schools.
For engineers, internships are generally a three-month summer experience, whereas co-ops can last eight or nine months and involve taking a semester off from school. They usually go to more senior, experienced students.
Pohl worked as both an engineering intern and co-op participant at the now-shuttered Fort Calhoun Station.
At one point, he piloted a remote-control submarine for an up-close view of the reactor vessel area. He worked alongside other engineers inspecting nuclear fuel.
Not all assignments were glamorous, of course. Pohl spent a good deal of time crunching spreadsheet numbers. He checked and documented every light bulb in Fort Calhoun’s control room after peer plant operating experience found that if a burned-out indicator was replaced with the wrong type, an electrical short could negatively affect equipment operations.
“They paired me up with a control room operator and made me the bulb guy,” he said with a laugh.
But the relationships and experiences he built in those roles paid off, leading to more opportunities. Pohl eventually took his final internship in OPPD’s corporate office, at a division known at the time as Operations Analysis (now Continuous Improvement). As an industrial engineer, Pohl focused on making systems safer, faster, and more robust and efficient. He worked on projects in nearly every area of the business.
Along the way, he met mentors and people who invested in his professional growth. When he graduated, he had two job offers from OPPD: one at Fort Calhoun, and the other in the Operations Analysis business unit.
Pohl chose the latter, launching a career that led him to several big leadership roles. He supervised OPPD’s Electric Service Design team, a part of the Customer Service business unit. Then he oversaw the utility’s Land Management team before migrating to his current role as manager of Programs and Planning.
Pohl said internships gives students an opportunity to see whether they want to pursue public power as a career.
“It’s a launch pad,” he said. “It gives students exposure to the organization, and it gives the organization exposure to them. It’s a win-win.”
Other interns head to OPPD’s Substation & System Protection business unit. Last year, the department offered two paid summer internships.
OPPD recruits heavily for those internships from Southeast Community College, which has corresponding degrees in electrical and electromechanical technology, as well as from Metro Community College and Northeast Community College.
This year, the utility will have three summer interns working in Substation & System Protection – an area of the company that involves following federal safety requirements to protect the nation’s electrical grid.
“It’s more of a constant job shadow,” said Brandon Parmer, manager of Substation & System Protection at OPPD. “We treat it as a three-month interview process. If an individual is highly motivated and has really good marks, their name will get around.”
Interns rotate through different disciplines within the substation group, letting them try the different facets of the business.
Breaker and test crews examine OPPD’s large transformers. Construction crews install and remove equipment, refurbish parts and build new substations. Switching crews switch out equipment and supply breakers for cable splicers and line workers. Shop workers test refurbished and recycled transformers to make sure they’re working correctly. System protection workers focus more on computer aided work such as installing, programming and testing relays to make sure the substation protection schemes keep OPPD’s infrastructure safe so it can deliver reliable power.
Parmer said he hopes to see the internship program expand to meet OPPD’s growing workforce needs.
“As a recruiting item, the internships are really good,” Parmer said. “It’s an investment in the future.”
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