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A Route Into Renewable Energy: An interview with Michael Brownell of Dayaway Careers

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A Route Into Renewable Energy: An interview with Michael Brownell of Dayaway Careers

Dayaway Careers is a specialist recruitment company based in the US and run by Michael Brownell, a former Accenture partner who founded the company in 2009. Its operating principle is the belief that the growth in the global renewable energy industry will at some point generate a job shortage and that this in turn will become an advantage for forward-thinking university students. Dayaway therefore sees its role as helping students to prepare for forthcoming opportunities in the industry.

The company insists on identifying and assisting exceptional students, the specific students that renewable energy companies really want, with relevant experience, education and passion. Given that the market is still small and evolving, particularly in the US, most young professionals will not, at present, be able to enter renewable energy directly. However, Dayaway believes that they can, with the right support, prepare themselves so that they are ready to be ‘first in line’ when renewable energy hiring really fires up.

Renewable Energy Magazine decided to talk to Michael to find out exactly what is on offer.

Is the alternative energy sector you mention really alternative?

Is renewable energy in the US still a niche market in your experience?

No.  To me, a niche market is and always will be small.  While renewable energy is small now relative to conventional energy markets, certain renewable sectors, such as solar and wind, have scaled nicely and have declining long term cost curves that will make them economically smart substitutes for fossil fuels going forward.  Renewable energy will not be a niche in the future.

How long do you think it will be before it becomes a growing mainstream market in the US?

Mainstream status requires, I think, renewable energy to be less expensive than fossil fuels, to be an economic substitute.  Renewable energy gets cheaper every year and fossil fuels get more expensive.   I don’t think anyone can say when the gap that now favors fossils will close, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it will.  External factors such as renewable energy-favorable policies and crazy low natural gas prices clearly will influence the outcome.

Are you adjusting to this by preparing applicants for foreign renewable energy markets, not just the US market?

Candidly, no.  US graduates clearly realize that many foreign RE markets are more advanced than the US, but they know it is hard for them to get work permits.  They also know that non-US universities offer excellent renewable energy education programs.  For that reason, I think US students are more interested in studying RE abroad than working abroad.

You mention a job shortage in alternative energy – how many college students in the US are seeking such jobs? What is the shortfall?

I don’t know the quantitative answer, but qualitatively I know that a career in or supportive of sustainability resonates with many, many students.  They see clean energy as a field where they can make money and make a difference in sustainability.  At the moment, it is very, very difficult for them to go directly into renewable energy out of school.

When do you envisage the job shortage becoming a ‘talent shortage’

I will play the economic substitution point I mentioned above.  But for fun, let’s try a hypothetical. US electricity prices presently are low because of low natural gas prices.  Let’s say, natural gas prices were to rise unexpectedly for some reason, for example, we found a cost effective way to compress or liquefy natural gas so the US could export it (and laws changed to permit this).  This would make wind and solar sourced electricity more attractive sooner than expected.  Would we have the base of skills we need to scale it quickly?  No.  Other hypotheticals affecting oil, nuclear, fracking or climate change or carbon legislation, etc. are not hard to imagine.  Future uncertainty favors renewable energy because its costs can only decline.

What does ‘exceptional’ mean, that is to say what kind of skills, knowledge and expertise are you looking for in college students, particularly with regard to specific college degrees?

Exceptional means really good grades, in areas of study relevant to renewable energy employers (e.g., STEM, finance, computer science) at the best schools and best programs coupled with relevant internship, club and project experience.  I think you add to these criteria the passion and determination needed to get into an industry that has to fight for its future.

What specific sectors do your job listings cover?

We focus on core sectors and peripheral sectors that move naturally with core sectors.  Core includes generating sources such as wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal, hydro (wave and tidal) and fuel cells.  Peripheral sectors are the mutually reinforcing industries such as battery storage, EVs, energy efficiency, smart grid and the like.  We monitor pure-play companies as well as companies with strong renewable energy divisions, including companies/organizations playing a strong supply chain role (renewable energy components, research, policy, etc.) There are judgment call calls as to what’s in and out, but the north star is to target jobs that either are in renewable energy or will develop experience required to get into RE in the future.

Where would you say the most pressing need for new applicants is at the moment?

Developing foundational experience and networking to develop contacts in RE.

Which are the hottest renewable energy companies at the moment in your opinion?

This month the following companies showed multiple listings among the 75+ listings in March:  SolarCity, SunEdison, Opower, Enernoc, Tesla, ICF. 

Which are the best graduate programmes to go for in your opinion?

Well, this sounds political, but there are lots of great graduate programs, both in and outside the US.  Different schools focus on different sectors and different competencies (engineering, MBA, policy).  Dayaway has identified (on the site) about 50 good programs.  IRELP.org has identified many, many more.

What are the best ways in which students can prepare themselves for a renewable energy career?

Apart from understanding what employers are looking for per you earlier question, I think a student should view renewable energy as a North Star destination to which there is not a direct flight.  This means accepting that you likely will have to work outside renewable energy first.  But, pick a job that will build the skills and experiences that renewable energy companies want.  A student should look at renewable energy companies on Linkedin and see where their employees worked first.  You’d be amazed at how many worked at Intel, Boeing, Accenture or even Exxon or Exelon.  These guys did not have a direct flight into renewable energy.  Students should also start networking now to get into renewable energy later; spend a little time networking every week.  It adds up over time and may lead to the big break.

How important is networking in the renewable energy industry? Where would you advise students to go in order to meet and talk with sector professionals?

Once a student has a vision of his role and targeted industry(s) – a target to network towards – networking is everything.  People get people jobs.  As for in-person meeting and talking, a good first step is to look into the major industry professional organizations, like ACORE, ASES, IRENA, AWEA to find out about current meetings.  Students often get special pricing.  Increasingly, there are lots of good online webinars which enable a student to hear and follow-up with experts at renewable energy companies.  Linkedin is a fantastic tool to identify early stage professionals at renewable energy companies.  The art is developing a non-pushy way to reach to these folks to make connections.

Surely there are other recruitment companies doing what you are doing? In my home city of Bristol for example I know at least one agency that specialises in renewable energy recruitment….

Dayaway focuses exclusively on inexperienced graduating/interning university students and exclusively on sustainable energy.  There may be other organizations, but I have not seen them.  My experience has been that search firms rarely work with entry-level placements because they cannot make money at it.  There are exceptions, for example hot computer science majors, but renewable energy is not an exception presently.  Renewable energy companies have little trouble filling their need for entry-level BS/MS graduates by using their existing in-house and outside agencies. 

How are you funded? Are you really telling me that Dayaway operates from your own personal funding? How do you expect this to improve in the future?

Just ask my wife J.  Yes, Dayaway receives no contributions and has generated very little income.  If Dayaway can continue growing its network, brand and content as it has since 2009, I am happy to continue the private funding.  The independence simplifies life greatly. Plus, the operating model of Dayaway would be easy to scale if market conditions called for it.   Apart from helping entry-level students, there will be an opportunity for Dayaway to place experienced hires.  It is cool to see, also, how the sophomores and seniors I worked with in 2009 are becoming senior consultants and young managers at renewable energy companies and they stay in touch.  If a renewable energy company wanted to pay Dayaway to identify an experienced manager, we’d be able to do it and we’d love to take the fee and use such revenue to fund the free support provided to the students.

Mike Brownell held various roles at Accenture, Andersen Consulting and Arthur Andersen before retiring in 2002 as a managing partner in the Accenture legal group, going on to found Dayaway Careers in 2009.   Mike received his BS degree in management from Purdue University in 1978 and his JD degree from Indiana University in 1982.  He has two sons and lives with his wife outside Chicago. 

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