A Day in the Life of a Hydroelectric Energy Professional

Meet Vern Cochran, Red Rock Hydroelectric Project Supervisor, Missouri River Energy Services

Vern Cochran believes there are three areas for work that are extremely reliable – no matter what the economy is doing at the time.

“People need to eat, people need fuel, and people need power,” he says.

Cochran has worked in all three of these areas, but he believes, “Power is the best.”

Today, Cochran, 59, is the Red Rock Hydroelectric Project Supervisor. This hydroelectric generating facility is at the Red Rock Reservoir on the Des Moines River in Iowa.

Before his career in the power industry, Cochran was in the active-duty Navy for five years and the Navy reserves for 17 years as a machinist mate. He spent his time in the engine room working on boilers, steam turbines, and electric systems. This gave him the great experience and background needed for working in the power industry since the jobs share similar skill sets.

Cochran adds, “the military teaches good discipline and helps you be open-minded and diverse in your thinking. I’ve never been around any military personnel who didn’t want to help or be supportive. They are good team players.”

Being a team player is the motto Cochran follows in his current role. We caught up with him to learn more about his daily job and what motivates him.

What is your typical day like?

Typically, I review logs and alarms from the previous day and respond to abnormal results or address anything necessary. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dictates how much water we can use to make power each day. At 8 a.m., we receive their expectations. We generate as much power as we can based on whatever the Corp of Engineers allows us to use.

Then we have daily morning meetings to talk about what we’re doing that day, so everyone has awareness of what’s going on in the facility. We’ll also meet with staff or contractors to do a job hazard analysis to ensure we’re working safely and to make sure the plant equipment is safe and that there is no damage. In addition to daily meetings, we have monthly checks. All of these checks and meetings ensure things run smoothly. This isn’t a big facility, but everyone has an awareness of what’s going on and what precautions to look out for. This is educational for everyone in the facility.

What do you like best about what you do?

I love seeing others succeed. I also love working through problems and meeting the mission and goals. My favorite thing is dealing with unforeseen problems like outages and getting the power back on quickly.

I also like how safety is a huge part of our role. Safety is a personal mindset. You have to want to work safely. To do that, we develop and nurture a safety attitude and culture here.

What’s your favorite time of day and why?

I like early mornings. Growing up in a rural setting, I like to see the world waking up. I also always like Mondays and Tuesdays because they are the start of a new week and bring new opportunities. I typically start work at 6:30 or 7 a.m. each day

What kind of training was necessary for your current job?

People might find it surprising that I don’t have any degrees. I just learned along the way how to take care of problems in the Navy and through my previous work in the power industry.

I also learned a lot from attending industry-specific conferences, such as HYDROVISION and Western Turbine Users Group meetings.

What kind of skills are required for your job?

These are the main skills I use each day, and I believe they are important for anyone in any industry:

Be humble. No one knows all the answers no matter how many degrees they have. The best idea can come from anyone in the company. Listen to everyone; everyone has value.

Develop interpersonal skills. I’ve seen some sharp people who were social introverts. They are extremely knowledgeable but can’t interact with people.

Be a team player and be part of the solutions, not the problems. Build a strong, successful team. Open up and don’t scold anyone for being honest. Allow people to talk freely and share information.

What’s the coolest part of your work?

One of the coolest things I get to do is bring my dog to work with me every day. He’s a 140-pound German Shepherd named Otis.

What are your future plans?

Retirement is an income level versus an age. I’m probably about seven or eight years away. I could’ve retired awhile back, but I like doing this work too much.

I have an opportunity from the Navy to get a full four-year degree, so I may do that before it’s gone. Not sure what I’ll major in yet though.

What advice would you give to people interested in working in the power industry?

I recommend anyone who wants to get into the power industry to look up an inexpensive program called Energy Generation Operations from Southeast Community College in Milford, Nebraska. It teaches you how to be a process plant operator or power plant operator. They teach biofuels, fossil fuels, nuclear, and wind technology, as well as heat cycle theory, how to read prints and how the components interact together and how to use them. People who come out of there with an associate’s degree in applied science (a two-year program) have a 92 percent placement rate in the field.

Or you could go my route by going into the Navy. The reason I recommend it is because every submarine and ship is its own little city and has its own power systems, so you build great knowledge on how these systems work.

A lot of people in the power industry are retiring in the next five to 10 years, and there aren’t a lot of people waiting to fill those positions. There is a lot of opportunity in this industry either operating power plants or supporting the industry by working with pipes, valves, and fittings or asset management and software support.