When Things Seem Dry, Grow Your Own

By: Weston Putman
Published in Northwest Public Power Association's (NWPPA) Bulletin Magazine

In the summer of 2016, nearly 700 students graduated high school from schools in and near UEC’s service territory in eastern Oregon. As they tossed their caps in the air, each had their own vision of what their future may look like.

In a literal sense, one student from Heppner High School had the brightest vision of them all. Kai Arbogast, a local to eastern Oregon, knew from the beginning that he wanted to join the electric industry. Upon graduation, Arbogast attended Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and it was in the Wolverine State that his interest in the electric industry heightened.

“After taking several electrical engineering courses at Calvin, I wanted to see if there were any opportunities at Umatilla Electric,” Arbogast said.

After a few emails and phone calls with UEC staff, Arbogast had a door open for a job shadow with UEC’s engineering department in spring 2018. During the job shadow, Arbogast received hands-on experience visiting substations, learning about protection systems, and discovering the basics of the electric grid.

“We know that shadowing can sometimes be far more valuable than classroom learning,” said Josh Lankford, UEC’s vice president of engineering and operations.

Lankford, then-manager of engineering, was Arbogast’s point of contact for the job shadow. Upon completion of the job shadow, Umatilla Electric offered Arbogast a formal internship the following year. By 2019, Arbogast saw himself working with UEC’s database.

“One of my main focuses during my internship was transitioning our substation inspection forms to a digital function,” Arbogast said.

UEC currently has over 45 substations, and each one gets inspected on a monthly basis. Cole Bode, manager of engineering at UEC, said Arbogast’s work allowed UEC to be more thorough and timely with those inspections. Even after Arbogast returned to Calvin, UEC worked with him to allow him to continue his internship remotely.

“We wanted him to know we were willing to support him and provide him the resources he needed to succeed,” Bode said. “We recognized the value he brought to UEC, and wanted to make sure we were taking steps to keep him here.”

By January 2021, a full-time job offer was extended to Arbogast, contingent upon his graduation in May of the same year. When asked how he felt after receiving his full-time offer, Arbogast said “I felt secure. I felt excited and happy to have the opportunity to head back home to eastern Oregon, to be around family and friends and work at a place with plenty of growth opportunities.”

Fast forward to today, Arbogast is now an engineer I at UEC and has already found himself leading projects.

“One of my favorite things about working at UEC is the ability you have to take responsibility and take the lead on projects,” he said.

Arbogast has been the project lead for UEC’s Automated Meter Replacement Initiative, a multi-year project aimed at replacing all of UEC’s meters to automated meters to support the cooperative’s ongoing efforts to improve service reliability.

“I don’t know very many 20-something-year-old engineers who can say they’ve led an entire automated meter replacement project,” Bode said. “We are incredibly proud to have Kai on the UEC team.”

As Arbogast transitioned to his full-time job in 2021, another young professional started his own job shadow at UEC. Alec Earls, a graduate of McLoughlin High School in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, began his job shadow at UEC in fall 2021._

“I was always interested in electrical engineering and computer science,” Earls said. “There weren’t a lot of technical opportunities available in eastern Oregon, so I’m glad I was able to get my foot in the door here at UEC.”

Similar to Arbogast’s path, Earls was offered a full-time internship with UEC within the engineering department in March 2022. Bode said UEC recognized his skill and dedication. During his internship, Earls has been able to work on all different kinds of projects and initiatives. He said his biggest focus has been creating a program to automate UEC’s location services for stakers and designers.

“Everyone is really supportive, social and there is a strong camaraderie in the office,” Earls said of the environment at UEC.

Earls has already jumped right in and has shown that same support and camaraderie to others in the office.

“We want all of our employees, interns or not, to feel welcome and valued here,” Bode said. “It’s great seeing Alec interacting with the rest of the team.”

Earls is completing his computer science degree from Eastern Oregon University while interning. He plans to complete his degree in April 2023, and has been offered an engineer I position at UEC, contingent upon his graduation.

“We understand they still have courses to finish, but we want them to know we’re invested in them and are dedicated to their success at UEC,” said Denise Boltz, manager of human resources at UEC.

Boltz said UEC is beginning to look at opening more job shadow and internship opportunities in order to focus on cultivating local talent in eastern Oregon. Like other utilities and organizations across the U.S., UEC has found it challenging to recruit and retain local talent.

“You see the data all the time; we are going to experience a strong retirement wave within the next five to 10 years,” Boltz said. “We are taking strong measures to stay ahead of that wave and limit the impact when that wave hits.”

When asked what the thoughts and feelings are from the other side, Arbogast said he thinks organizations would be surprised at how many students want to stay in their hometown.

“This is where our families are, our friends, and our memories,” he said. “We want to come back.”