Minnesota program helps manufacturers train their teams for an all-electric future
Bloomington-based Thermo King has for decades manufactured diesel-powered refrigeration and heating units for use in semi-trailers, trains, ships and buses. The company’s logo can be seen on ubiquitous “reefer” trailers being pulled along highways across the country.
As Thermo King has begun a massive transition to electrify its product lines, training employees has been a challenge — and a common one facing other companies moving toward electrification.
Last year, the company contacted the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute to co-create and pilot a 12-credit engineering electrification graduate certificate. They believe the program offers the nation’s first graduate-level certificate specifically for electrification.
The collaboration led the state to fund the Minnesota Center for Electrification Opportunity, an initiative announced in July that will train workers in companies moving toward electrification and hybrid systems.
Jodie Greising, director of the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership at the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said that “to ensure Minnesota businesses remain competitive and to help workers retain jobs, it’s imperative that training is available to upskill and reskill workers in occupations such as technicians, electricians, and engineers to help integrate, troubleshoot, and design the systems that leverage these evolving technologies.”
Grant Ovsak, Electrification Center of Excellence leader for Thermo King Americas, helped develop the certificate.
“We’re moving towards a sustainable power source from diesel, which is the same transition as the automotive industry,” he said. “We have a large employee base that needs to be brought along for that journey.”
A division of Trane, Thermo King has more than 200 engineers at its Twin Cities campus who could benefit from the certificate. But Ovsak said he wants employees in many disciplines to take the courses.
“The certificate is not just for engineers,” he said. “We want human resource [managers] to take the courses because we’re hiring in that area, and they need to be able to talk the lingo. Even quality, aftermarket and project management employees can take the courses.”
As companies move toward electrification, all their employees must learn a new technical language that will take time and practice, Ovsak said. The courses will allow students to test batteries in a lab and see the problems, such as thermal runaway, that electrical systems potentially face, Ovsak said.
John Hurst, senior director of the landscape appliance company Toro’s Center for Technology, Research & Innovation, said around 20% to 25% of the company’s sales involve electric products, some of which have been on the market for years. Employees’ training on electrification has been primarily offered in-house or on the job.
In the past, Toro, also headquartered in Bloomington, has worked with higher education providers on training programs that proved hard to sustain, he said. Hurst said that having the university deliver the classes and offer credits should appeal to Toro employees and other companies. The ability to count the courses toward a graduate degree should also attract more ambitious employees.
“What excites me about this is it’s a pathway we can use to continually send people through year after year as we hire or retrain staff,” he said, adding that Toro plans to encourage rather than mandate the training.
Keith Dennis, president of the Beneficial Electrification League, said the confluence of federal, state and industry investments in electrification “merit more deliberate training opportunities. We are seeing some of this around the country, but it is mostly from an increased awareness of sustainability officers and from companies who sell the products themselves.”
Educating on electrification
The Minnesota Center for Electrification Opportunity is working on a long-term vision to quicken the pace of electrification, a strategy it believes will create employment growth in Minnesota and position its workforce for jobs in a variety of fields, from utilities to renewable energy companies.
The state has few options for retraining employees in companies moving to electrification. Like many states, Minnesota has created clean energy training programs at state schools for students seeking jobs in the solar, wind energy and biofuel industries.
Non-degree and certificate programs exist for electricians and people in construction through unions and clean energy training centers. Electrification courses designed for employees, however, are challenging to find.
The Center for Technological Leadership resides in the university’s College of Science and Engineering. Travis Thul, senior fellow and operations director at the Technological Leadership Institute, said the center’s role has been to work with industry to develop continuing education seminars, short courses, master’s degree programs and other training opportunities.
The electrification certificate will serve as the foundation of an eventual master’s degree, Thul said.
For now, he worries about attracting students to the program in a tight labor market where many employees are comfortable in their jobs and have little incentive to give up their nights to attend classes.
“We’re facing an unbelievable demand from the industry standpoint,” he said. “We need this talent for the United States’ economic competitiveness to be assured, while simultaneously we’re limited on human capital motivated and inspired to come and pursue these topics.”
The certificate courses will be taught by professors of practice who work at the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Toro and Polaris. A full-time tenure track professor at the university assisted in developing the coursework to reflect academic standards, Thul said.
One of those professors of practice is Toro electrical engineer Robb Anderson, who delivered the first introduction to electrification course to around 20 people, including managers, engineers and service departments who worked at Thermo King.
One challenge is keeping up with the fast-evolving field, Anderson said. Another is motivating people with full-time jobs to finish their classwork. By late August, the first cohort had a few procrastinators still filing the final papers, though Anderson felt confident they would make the deadline.
Anderson said the classes feature field trips to different companies at various stages of electrification. Classes visited a University of Minnesota wind turbine research facility, a Wabtec Corporation electric train operation in St. Paul, and Toro’s headquarters.
“Students hear about the challenges companies face, which makes the courses very real,” he said.
Hurst, a 23-year veteran of Toro, believes the certificate helps employees stay up to speed in an industry facing a monumental transformation. “I think for us, it’s an exciting journey,” he said. “I tell people walking in the door that it’s the best time to come right now because we have so much change.”
The Minnesota Center for Electrification Opportunity holds an “Electroposium” Oct. 9 at the U’s McNamara Alumni Center. The event offers training and information sessions on the future of electrification.