Recognizing Military Veterans Across Utilities: Navigating the Wild West of Utilities with Dustin Hemingway - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

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Journalist, Freelance Journalist

I am a New York-based freelance journalist interested in energy markets. I write about energy policy, trading markets, and energy management topics. You can see more of my writing...

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  • Nov 7, 2022

To celebrate Veterans Day this upcoming Friday, November 11th, the Energy Central Community Team will be shining a light on the many outstanding utility professionals in our network who also spent time in the military.  This week, we'll be featuring interviews with these veterans sharing how they found their way into the industry. We will also highlight their unique perspectives of the industry and how they are influencing the utility space.  

All the interviews will be collected at this special Veterans Day 2022 topic tag.

To all the veterans in the Energy Central Community, we want to say thank you for your service and we wish you a Happy Veterans Day. 

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Air Force veteran Dustin Hemingway rose through the ranks quickly in his twenty-year military career. His progress transitioning from the military into the trenches of utilities has been a ‘wild ride’, he says. “Understanding how a utility operates is like drinking from a firehose,” he says.

Hemingway, who works as a consultant with Consumers Energy, was thrown into the deep end of utility operations immediately after recruitment. He was assigned to a complex pilot program that involved integrating telecom boxes with energy transmission.

“There were no processes or training to understand the technology,” he says. The jumble of unions, essential workers like linesmen, and complicated leadership structures from multiple departments added to the confusion. “Everything is tiered here,” he says. The setup is a contrast to the military’s “cookie-cutter” order of hierarchy and departments that is replicated across bases throughout its operations.

The practical aspects of adjusting to civilian life also irked him. Hemingway joined the military when he was 18. For the next twenty years, his basic needs and living costs were taken care of at the military base. “I had never paid a utility bill as an adult!”, laughs the 43-year-old.

But Hemingway has coped well. After five years, he says he has a handle on work-related assignments and he pays his utility bills on time. He credits his military training with establishing an order to his job and home life.


Balancing Regulation with Innovation

Hemingway manages the rollout of utility meter telecommunications solutions. It is a job that leverages his previous experience working on telecom equipment in the military and combines it with utility operations. With 5G rollout, telecom technology that provides for two-way transmission has become an increasingly important part of smart meter communication. His background in the military informs him with a singular perspective about his duties.

In the military, Hemingway says, they dealt with only two questions while developing a new product or process: Why are we doing this and how are we doing this? “We didn’t worry about where our product fit in the market or how do we market or sell it to consumers," he says. “We just got the job done.”

Getting the job done at a utility can be a slow and laborious process, as he has discovered.

The industry ranks notoriously low on innovation for good reason. Its infrastructure and processes are dated. They need improvement and upgrades to keep up with the tech’s rapid advances.

Hemingway blames shifting regulations while having a fixed mindset on how utilities have operated in the past for the industry’s sclerotic nature. “They [the industry] are being told to invent something new and better to save the planet but, at the same time, I feel that our hands are tied until customer culture advances toward more energy conscience decisions which will in turn further shape future regulations. Utilities are now focusing on having a growth mindset with great innovated ideas but this ship seems vary hard to turn.”

Other factors that have stymied innovation in the industry are product lifecycle management and the fast pace at which telecommunication equipment evolves in the market. Reliability utility networks are critical and ensure continuity with prior systems and ways of working, and emphasis on shareholder returns, says Hemingway.


Bringing Order to Chaos with New Ideas

Hemingway sees more opportunities for veterans amid the utility industry’s constraints. He says military veterans can make a vital difference to utility operations in two ways.

First, they can bring structure – a necessity in the military – and order to the chaos of new ventures and pilot programs at utilities. “If everything is not written down or structured, then it does not exist [in the military],” he says. That ability to analyze operations and document the big picture has helped Hemingway make useful contributions to change management processes in his current job.

Soft skills are another area where veterans can contribute to the organization. He lists leadership, followership, management, critical thinking, and mentoring skills as qualities especially prized at utilities. Hemingway’s experience managing large teams and solving complex problems from his military stint has helped him in current duties. For example, as a superintendent, he was responsible for 100 members of an Airforce Squadron.

Empowering people to do their job is key to building initiative, he says.

“In the military, you are empowered pretty quickly at a young age to handle the task you are assigned” he explains. In the civilian workplace, however, you are taught to wait your turn, says Hemingway. “In the time that they [utility employees] take their first step, a military man will have taken five steps. These steps forward are easier with rigid structure and standards but harder to do when told to, ‘sail a ship as you build it.’ It’s hard to see where the bar has been set sometimes but as a veteran I know how to put integrity and honor first to ensure each step forward is made with conviction.”

While working on his current assignment, Hemingway says he found that many times people are not even aware that they have power to make a difference. This makes it difficult to convince them to own responsibility for their tasks. Complicating matters further are shifting assignments and operational procedures that break the continuity and commitment required to complete and own a job that could be years in the development.


Making A Career in The Utility Industry  

For those interested in pursuing a career in the utility industry, Hemingway’s advice is to get a “breadth of experience” in the military. He says the four years he spent as a special duty officer in the ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) unit were key to helping him land his current gig. 

“I look back at it now and see it provided me with the tools to be successful at what I did,” he says. Keeping options open within the industry is another good tactic. The good news is that utilities offer a variety of roles that require different skillsets, he says. Utility companies seem to have a front-line labor force with critical trade skilled employees which is very similar to the military from HVAC to IT and of course, line workers. Experience pays in this labor space.   

While they offer many opportunities for veterans, utility companies need help marketing themselves to the military as a career option. According to the U.S. Census Bureau less than 10% of our civilian work force is employed by people 18 to 54 years of age. This means two things, civilians “growing up” in the utility space don’t have much if any experience working with military veterans so then don’t fully understand the soft and hard skills ingrained into military members. The other fact is that this is a very small portion of the work force population to concentrate on. But the military could do a better job as well. Veterans only seem to concentrate on their next career when faced with it at the last hour. Active recruitment by utilities would ensure that a growth mindset is continuing to be developed while encouraging military members to be a part of civilian employment. Maybe giving more hope to a military member that isn’t fully satisfied with their current active position. This could give a young military veteran a clearer path towards career progression while retaining members.

“[If they knew about the career options at utilities], veterans could work towards a degree related to the industry while still in the military,” suggests Hemingway. “We need ideas, ways for people to use less energy,” he continues. And military personnel can become important conduits for those ideas given their experience with processes and innovation.

But they should be prepared to learn, reorient, and drink from the firehose of rapid changes occurring in the utility industry. “Where the utility industries meet the telecommunications industry is still like a Wild West [in terms of innovation],” says Hemingway. “You need to keep your head on a swivel while organizations are trying to shoot moving targets with shotgun blasts. The dust might settle on the road that I am on, but the utilities have many roads where military professionals are needed to help pave the way”.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Nov 7, 2022

Dustin - Thanks for your service and for sharing your story with the Energy Central Community!  

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 7, 2022

“In the time that they [utility employees] take their first step, a military man will have taken five steps. These steps forward are easier with rigid structure and standards but harder to do when told to, ‘sail a ship as you build it.’ It’s hard to see where the bar has been set sometimes but as a veteran I know how to put integrity and honor first to ensure each step forward is made with conviction.”

A valuable character trait, and it makes sense it would come as second nature to a veteran! Are you able to effectively impart this lesson to your utility colleagues who don't share your background? Do they follow your example? 

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