Editor’s note: This series explores the fascinating, fulfilling and sometimes surprising jobs available at OPPD, and what it takes to get hired for those jobs.
Drive anywhere in eastern Nebraska and you’ll see miles of power lines stretching over cornfields, past buildings, alongside busy highways.
Taking all that power for granted is easy. But someone has to ensure that every pole stands sturdy and straight, with the strength to hold thousands of pounds of wire and equipment.
Somebody has to guarantee that every substation converts voltage safely and efficiently for use in homes and businesses. And someone has to test the integrity of new lines, substations and power generating facilities.
That’s why OPPD hires engineers – a lot of engineers – from all sorts of disciplines, including some you might not expect. Their work, usually behind the scenes, helps OPPD fulfill its mission to provide reliable, affordable and environmentally sensitive electricity. And the stakes are high.
“When you cross a bridge, you don’t tend to worry about it falling,” said Marcos Benitez, an engineer II in OPPD’s Distribution Engineering-Systems Improvements division. “You expect it to be safe and well-designed. It’s the same thing with power poles. The public should expect that a pole is safe, that it’s not going to fall. That’s a public trust we have to make sure we never lose.”
The journey to become an OPPD engineer starts as early as high school. Do you like math? Science? Do you enjoy solving problems, building things, working through challenges?
Engineers need at least a four-year college degree to enter the profession. But many students sample life at OPPD before graduating through an internship or a nine-month engineering co-op.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to see if they like this type of work, and for OPPD it’s a chance to see whether a student is potentially a good fit for permanent hire,” said Jené Reese, an engineer and senior account executive at OPPD.
OPPD has no shortage of work, either, given the unprecedented demand for electricity expected over the next decade. Old power lines need to be replaced. Existing plants must be maintained, kept in compliance with federal rules, and run as efficiently as possible. New generation is coming, whether it’s from solar or wind or battery storage or natural gas.
Sure, there are electrical engineers to design, test and oversee electrical equipment. But the utility also employs civil engineers, industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, and chemical engineers, to name a few.
“When we go to career fairs to try to entice people to come to OPPD, some will say, ‘I’m not an electrical engineer, I’m a civil engineer, so I probably don’t fit in with an electric utility,’” said Dannie Buelt, director of Engineering. “I say, ‘Well, wait a minute. Do you know how many of those we hire?’ It’s a good educational opportunity for folks who haven’t really considered everything that’s required to run an electric utility.”
Benitez, who joined OPPD in 2020, always wanted to serve his community. Growing up in Omaha, he knew he wanted to build things. He gravitated toward engineering, first at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and then at the University of Nebraska Omaha, where he earned a civil engineering degree.
“I feel like I owe a lot to the community, and that’s what really made me want to stay here,” Benitez said. “It’s public service, and that’s what I want to do.”
As a college student, Benitez worked for OPPD twice in the utility’s engineering co-op program. He was hired full-time straight out of college. Now, he takes pride in the seldom-noticed but critical work of maintaining an electrical grid that serves thousands of people.
“It’s rewarding just to see everything you’ve designed, knowing that you’re meeting that big demand,” he said.
Every day is different. Benitez helps develop lines along public roads and in fast-growing suburbs. He reviews construction drawings and designs for future OPPD projects, meets with crews to review their plans, and answers any questions that may arise.
Recently, Benitez worked on the construction of a new distribution circuit north of Ashland, between Omaha and Lincoln. The assignment was exciting and a bit nerve-wracking, but his teammates were always willing to help.
“It’s always a learning opportunity, and that’s what also keeps the job fun,” he said. “Each new project has its own challenges. It doesn’t get boring.”
Reese couldn’t decide. She liked chemistry and math in high school, but wasn’t sure what major to pick in college. Her dad suggested chemical engineering, a path that intrigued her. But where might it lead?
Eventually, Reese landed an internship at OPPD’s Nebraska City Station, where she saw firsthand the construction of Unit 2, a 663-megawatt, coal-fired generation plant with a powerful turbine.
“It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” she said. “You study thermodynamics and pumps and mechanics in school, but it’s different when it’s on paper versus seeing it in real life. I loved it, and I loved working with the people down there.”
That 2008 internship led to a full-time career at OPPD that she still enjoys as a senior account executive. Every day, she works to meet the needs of some of the utility’s largest customers.
“Without energy, nobody else can do their job,” she said. “It’s essential. You have to keep the lights on.”
The work is daunting at times. Reese was there in July 2021 when a major power outage hit the district, a stressful moment that required a big group effort.
“You feel the responsibility to get people back online as safely and quickly as possible,” she said. “It’s the worst part of the job because people are without power, but it’s also the best because it brings us together as a group to fix it.”
Engineers spend a lot of time collaborating with other OPPD employees to help solve problems in the field, said Chuck Manternach, an OPPD principal engineer who specializes in substations.
On a recent weekend, Manternach helped two electricians and a relay technician with an equipment issue.
“It’s pretty cool work,” said Manternach, an electrical engineer. “My satisfaction comes from the day to day work of keeping our equipment running, keeping our people safe. It’s nice when they call and you can help them solve a problem.”
Manternach said he became interested in the power aspects of electrical engineering through a circuits class at Iowa State University. He enjoyed the challenge, and working for a utility proved to be a good fit.
Manternach said OPPD welcomes engineers from all experience levels. Some start fresh out of college, while others arrive with years of experience. Before he started at OPPD, Manternach spent a decade working at an Iowa utility, followed by stints in manufacturing and consulting.
“We come from a lot of different places,” he said.
OPPD will almost certainly add more engineering jobs as technology evolves, Buelt said. Think about the planned move to Advanced Metering Infrastructure, which provides a better way to track and respond to outages. Or the push for more renewable energy. The changes ahead will require creativity, STEM skills and technical know-how.
Engineering is also a stable, high-paying career, with plenty of opportunities to advance and network. You can interact with coworkers through the OPPD Society of Engineers. There are other groups as well, including the OPPD Women’s Network, led by Reese, which hosts Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day events at high schools to draw more young women into the profession.
OPPD actively encourages interested engineers to consider the next step in their career and coaches them on leadership, communication and teamwork, Buelt said.
“It’s easy to get behind the mission of what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re keeping the lights on and serving the public. We’re trying to deliver the best product we can to our constituents.”
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