Graduating with rosy visions of success and satisfaction, young electrical power engineers — what few there are — will enter an industry that is short on pizzazz and long on mundane and mature technologies. It hasn't been that long since we first saw solid-state construction in many of the products typically specified by electrical engineers. Microprocessor control is even newer.

These engineers will enter an industry where consulting electrical engineering is considered a commodity, a price-sensitive service in the minds of many architects and owners. As supervisors to this new breed, many veteran engineers will ask, Why enter an industry in which you're asked to do more for less, while being buffeted by criticism from contractors for the quality of your working drawings and from architects and owners for cost overruns, extras, and claim litigation?

But the biggest problem will be the young engineers' lack of what I like to call “construction common sense.” Sure, they'll have all the required technical knowledge and be comfortable with Fourier series equations, Laplace transforms, and calculus. In fact, they'll probably be able to take the Fundamentals of Engineering and Professional Engineering exams right after graduation and pass with flying colors. But what they won't know is what's involved in electrical construction: the types of boxes for specific wall constructions, for example; or maximum wire sizes that you can physically pull, insert, and/or terminate; or even how to size motor feeder conductors.

Consider these examples of the current lack of construction common sense.

  • A young engineer working as a consultant for a major industrial client was concerned about voltage drop on an isolated ground (IG) conductor, so he specified that a 6 AWG conductor be run from the service grounding electrode and terminated at an IG receptacle. I still wonder how the installing electrician was able to bend the conductor into a small enough loop, let alone get it under the device's IG screw.

  • While working for a municipal agency, another young engineer had the task of designing the electrical portion for a low-income, multiple-unit housing project. His design included some hefty feeders uncharacteristic of multifamily residential occupancies; fractional horsepower rooftop fans had 6 AWG and 4 AWG feeders. In a telephone discussion, he told me he sized the conductors for the starting current of each motor. The tone of his voice implied this was a commonly recognized design practice.

  • Still another young engineer recently hired by a national department store chain went to a new store to inspect the electrical installation and make sure the contractor and local utility were in agreement as to the configuration of the service tie-in. Parallel 750kcmil copper conductors ran from the store's main switchboard to the utility's pad mount transformer. The engineer brought his own clamp-on ammeter to measure phase current and clamped it around each conductor of the parallel conductors for each phase, adding the readings to get the current on the specific phase. He concluded that some conductors were overloaded. I tried explaining that to get accurate current readings he should use a large, jointed CT accessory that could fit around all the parallel conductors of a phase. After a heated argument, we contacted the manufacturer of his clamp-on, who finally convinced the engineer he needed the accessory.

Granted, these are extreme cases and certainly not the norm. But no matter how academically talented our young graduates may be, they will one day encounter problems they didn't read about in a book. The solution involves getting these young and eager people onto jobsites as frequently as possible to increase their practical knowledge and enhance their capabilities.

What do you think? E-mail me with your comments.