“How did you get your start in the grid?” is a new feature of Electric Light & Power Executive Digest that will run intermittently (or until executives and engineers quit wanting to tell us how they rose in their careers).
The third chapter in the series is focused on Brian Slocum, vice president of operations for transmission firm ITC. He’s been an engineer in the transmission business almost his whole career and joined ITC in 2003 when it was a fledgling company.
Q. How did you get your start in the power grid?
“I really found my way into the industry by chance. At Wayne State University in Detroit, I majored in electrical engineering but didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do after graduation. During my senior year, I filled out an application at the college’s career counseling office, but I more or less forgot about it and took an engineering job in the automotive industry. A few weeks in, I received a call from Detroit Edison-which had found my resume through the school-and they ended up making an offer to me.
“I then had a choice to make between the tried-and-true auto sector-which seemed like it would always provide reliable engineering work in metropolitan Detroit-and power, which I knew little about. My uncle spent his career at GM, traveling every few years to new cities for new roles, so when it came to stability, he recommended the utility industry. That made my decision. I took a leap without much visibility into what my career would look like. Interestingly, it was a time when Detroit Edison was hiring a lot to prepare themselves for an aging workforce-a challenge that our industry is again facing today. My career has been an example for today’s STEM students that they should consider that leap into the utility sector.”
Q. What was the toughest part about that first job?
“Well, a first job always presents some challenges, but overall it was a great gig. It offered me the opportunity to learn about a lot of different components of the utility sector. In 2003-a few months after ITC started up-I took notice that a lot of the smart and well-respected people working in the Michigan power world were making their way over to ITC. Top engineers with years of experience were moving over to this new company, because they believed in the vision of an independent transmission model.
“When I joined ITC, there were only 50 employees, and in the years since, we’ve grown to more than 600. For me, the company represented opportunity. ITC needed people to work on new projects, to be involved in major initiatives, and it didn’t matter that I didn’t have any grey hair or a decade of experience under my belt. New companies often present you with the chance to sink or swim. Alongside my excellent new colleagues, I embraced the challenges, learned and grew-as did ITC as a company.”
Q. Do you remember what you learned from a mentor that might have helped you progress the most?
“Detroit Edison started a formal mentorship program for new engineers, and I was fortunate to be paired with a mentor who took his role very seriously. He showed me all the ins-and-outs of the company, and I met people who were working on a wide range of utility engineering projects. It opened my eyes to the possibilities within the power sector, and it instilled a life-long appreciation of mentorship, which I try to carry on in my current role.
“At this exciting moment in time, it’s vital for those of us with experience in the industry to reach out to new engineers looking at the energy sector to show them how many stimulating challenges and opportunities they’ll get in this business as it evolves. I tragically lost a good friend and colleague recently who modeled this behavior of mentoring new engineers. We need more people like him who invest into the next generation of our business.”
Q. What is it about this business that excites you most about the future and keeps you there?
“Over the years, I’ve learned to fully take advantage of the opportunities you have-no matter what they look like at the time. You never know when that experience you had will come in handy down the road, so it’s important not to be short-sighted about what an opportunity is. Something you don’t think is a huge project now, could be the chance that paves the way down the road.
“One of the most exciting things about this business-and this company in particular-is knowing that those opportunities for growth will continue. It is an exciting time in transmission, with changing generation sources and new modes of producing energy, so I’m excited to be at the forefront of delivering resilient power to help serve our communities.”
Q. Is there anything that worries you about the future grid?
“Well, our society is putting increasing demands on electric infrastructure that wasn’t designed for today’s needs , much less what we’re asking of it to support an energy-diverse, more advanced technology future. We need to ensure the electric grid can keep pace with the changing inputs and modern demands so it can continue its critical role.
“Let’s start conversations across our industry on how to build smarter energy infrastructure that can help meet the promise of new technologies and diverse fuel sources.”
Q. If you had everything to do over, what would you do differently in that early part of your career?
“I never regret making the move to ITC. Over the last 14 years, I’ve been able to take on a massive array of projects, and I’ve evolved as an engineer and gained experience in business and leadership in ways I never could have predicted when I joined the company in 2003. Simultaneously, ITC has grown into the largest independent transmission company in the country, with high-voltage transmission lines serving seven states and even spanning the U.S.-Canadian border.
“However, I have to admit that on the tough days, a small part of me wishes I’d pursued a career in music, though I don’t know how my wife and kids would feel about me traipsing around the country in a tour bus.”
Q. What is your favorite hobby when you’re off the job?
“I’m still able to pursue music in some ways. I recently played Javert in my church’s production of Les Miserables (see photo by Bruce Harold, above). My mother is a piano teacher, so I grew up singing and playing music. I firmly believe that music and engineering are connected. And with the occasional “opportunity” to sing at work-like at the recent retirement celebration for our former CEO and founder Joe Welch-ITC offers me both!”
Editor’s Note: If you are part of utility or grid-sector company who has someone with a story to tell and want to be part of the “How did you get Your Start in the Grid?” series, contact me at email@example.com.
Previous “Get Your Start” stories: