Are Government and Utilities the New Sexy Destinations for MBAs?

6/22/09

I’m sure some of you have heard a version of this quote before: “In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, large families in the U.S. sent their fifth or sixth child to work for the government or a utility company under the assumption that the later the child was born the less intelligent he/she was.” Even for most of us from the generation X (or Y or Z, whatever they are calling us these days) any mention of government or utility jobs brings visuals of diesel locomotives coughing dark soot and slowly chugging away to, well, nowhere. When was the last time you saw a glossy business school brochure highlighting how many students they place with the Bureau of Land Management or Pacific Gas & Electric? Exactly.

Is this about to change? Has it suddenly become sexy to work for the government and/or a utility company? There definitely are some signs here at the MIT Sloan School of Management that attitudes are changing. More than a handful of my classmates have accepted summer internship offers from utility companies and/or government agencies this year.

“How is this possible?” I’ve been asking myself. How can two such dissimilar worlds—the business schools that are the ultimate centers of capitalist education and the utilities and government offices that are the ultimate conservative workplaces—come together? Well, it turns out that we’re living in a new world in 2009.

Today, with $900 billion of stimulus capital being handed out, Washington, D.C. is being touted as the new Wall Street. After decades of inaction, there is suddenly urgent talk of building 220-volt electricity transmission lines all across the U.S. Today, consumers want an hour-by-hour update of their electricity consumption. Today, new business models are being talked about to get ready for carbon pricing. It’s in this environment that students from business schools are expected to thrive.

“Working at the US Department of Energy (DOE) today is like working at NASA during the Apollo program,” says Leland Cheung, a first-year Sloan student. Leland will spend his summer at the Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) in Washington. ARPA-E, under the DOE umbrella, has been tasked with dispensing $400 million to companies moving advanced energy technologies toward commercialization.

Cheung, with a pre-Sloan career in the venture capital industry, hopes to get valuable exposure to the energy sector and develop his network while at ARPA-E this summer. While he does not think a full time job in the government is something he would prefer, he says “I would try to adopt and incorporate best practices from the private sector in the government to make it more attractive for bright and energetic individuals.”

Obama Administration policies seem to be making government jobs more attractive. “Obama changed the tenor of what it means to pursue an energy career with the US government,” Christina Ingersoll, a first-year Sloan student, told me. “Under Bush’s administration, I would have felt different and probably more suspicious of working for the government.” Ingersoll will spend her summer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, CO in the Technology Transfer Office.

Prior to starting at Sloan, she had not given any thought about working for the government. She changed her mind after talking to a faculty member at MIT Sloan and fellow MIT students. “NREL is a phenomenal place if you’re interested in renewable energy,” she says. “I knew I would work hard, but with smart interesting people. I have the chance to develop an expertise, and to have access to some of the leading scientists in the world on energy. Also, Colorado is a great location for the summer!”

Changes in regulations, including feed-in tariffs/decoupling/advance metering, seem to be making the utilities a sought-after destination for business school students. A group director at Massachusetts utility NSTAR told Pavel Gavrilov, a first-year Sloan student, that she felt change was coming due to the increase in MBAs coming through the organization. Gavrilov was one of those interested students. He has accepted a summer internship offer from NSTAR.

Gavrilov would like to see further changes at utilities. “For too long it’s been slow and steady growth as the only option for utilities and thus they just build rate base” he says. ” I think with changing regulations they are able to fulfill their shareholders needs in other ways–just look at decoupling.”

Veronica Metzner, another first-year Sloan student, agrees with Gavrilov and says that the utilities should go further. “It is critical for the utilities to asses how to best meet the needs of their customers by helping them become as energy efficient as possible while at the same time continuing to deliver sustained and respectable returns to shareholders,” says Metzner.

Metzner accepted a summer internship offer from the California’s largest utility, PG&E. She added that she always wanted to be in the energy field, but the support of MIT’s Energy Club and other campus resources helped her maintain a focus and get access to career opportunities.

Like other organizations, government agencies and utilities expect students to have a grasp of both traditional management skills and cross-disciplinary concepts. A strong focus on energy related activities and quantitative skills help immensely, Metzner and Ingersoll commented. Gavrilov on the other hand thinks that while MBAs are becoming a more important part of utilities, there’s a long way to go for most of them. To apply skills learnt and using the MBA experience to help the organizations flourish in these changing times will require some time and patience.

What remains to be seen is whether the change that seems to be getting business-school students excited about working for government agencies and utilities will continue, or whether these organizations will settle back into the conservative status quo ante. Can a bunch of motivated business school students armed with management and quantitative skills catalyze this change? Stay tuned.

Mahesh Konduru is currently a Principal at the Potomac Energy Fund. He is an alumnus of the MIT Sloan School of Management. Follow @

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