The University of Connecticut this year kicked off a new Master of Science in Advanced Manufacturing for Energy Systems degree with a $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Credit: Daderot / Wikimedia Commons

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The University of Connecticut is already expanding its newly-launched energy systems training program amid a shortage of energy workers in the state.

Energy employment continues to grow in Connecticut. But hiring managers say they are struggling to find a workforce skilled in advanced renewable energy technologies, and the state’s flagship university is responding.

“Connecticut has been behind in supporting our needs,” said Sridhar Kanuri, vice president of research and engineering at Doosan Fuel Cell America, based in a suburb of Hartford. Doosan is wooing graduates from the University of Massachusetts — which offers an energy engineering program with option tracks in renewable energy — and engineering schools from the West Coast, whose students bring skills in managing new technologies in the green space.

Currently, only 10 percent of Doosan’s hiring is from within Connecticut.

“We need engineers trained in the energy area,” Kanuri emphasized.

The University of Connecticut this fall will expand its newly-launched program to train working professionals in implementing clean technologies across industry verticals. Earlier this year, UConn kicked off its new, two-year Master of Science in Advanced Manufacturing for Energy Systems degree with a $1.25 million federal grant from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Although we target the energy industry, the skills that we intend to develop will be useful in any industry, especially in product development and manufacturing,” said Ugur Pasaogullari, a professor at UConn’s Department of Mechanical Engineering who is heading the program.

Students will study advanced materials, processing, and sensing and diagnostics, gaining the know-how to manage the entire product lifecycle in energy systems. In contrast, current traditional degrees offer training in just one discipline, requiring companies like Doosan to invest in employee education.

The skills that energy engineers bring to their employers are niche: For example, fuel cell companies, especially those running automotive fuel cell power plants which use up a lot of carbon, require workers to make molded parts out of carbon and put a catalyst onto it.

“Creating folks with basic understanding of handling catalyst materials, and mixing it with polymers, is a value add,” Kanuri pointed out.

Job opportunities in new technologies are expanding in light of the Northeast’s aggressive goals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The convergence of public concern over climate change and public policy enabling the transition is requiring a new set of workers with the skills to design, implement and manage clean technologies.

“There is a need to advance existing technologies in wind, solar and geothermal energy to make it more affordable to municipalities, individuals and businesses. It’s all pretty cutting edge and we need qualified people to deal with the challenge,” said Eric Brown, vice president for manufacturing policy and energy outreach at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

UConn is among a handful of universities across the country to launch master’s level degrees in sustainability. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded $2.5 million in 2018 to the Georgia Tech Research Corporation, a nonprofit organization that supports research at Georgia Institute of Technology, to develop a program for advanced manufacturing engineers in materials and process technologies in energy-related manufacturing. The institute also received a philanthropic donation to launch fully funded fellowships in its new Master of Sustainable Energy and Environmental Management program, the first master’s-level program in the state with an exclusive focus on sustainability.

Tufts University in Massachusetts is poised to launch the first offshore wind energy engineering master’s program in the U.S. this fall, offered by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Areas of specialization will include infrastructure and transmission, site characterization and permitting, and foundation design and monitoring. Last fall, the University of Washington launched an online Master of Science in Civil Engineering Energy Infrastructure degree to address the transition of the country’s energy infrastructure toward sustainable sources.

Tyler Crowl, a student at the new UConn program, aspires to do just that. “I want to help develop cleaner, more efficient, and effective energy,” said Crowl, who has a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from Syracuse University. “I want to develop an energy source that is efficient enough to be on par or better than natural gas, or develop a way to process natural gas so that it has lower emissions and impurities.”

Sujata Srinivasan

Sujata is an award-winning independent business journalist based in Connecticut.