At 29, U.S. Army veteran Marsha Smith hung up her uniform to pursue another goal: to become an electrical engineer. With support from her husband, family and the GI Bill, she enrolled in classes at American Military University.
Then Smith learned she was pregnant. It was a lot to take on at once – juggling schoolwork, motherhood, a household and a job, but she was determined to persevere.
“When we had our daughter, Harley, I questioned if now was the best time to do this,” she said. “But I needed an education to attain my goal of becoming an engineer. So, I took it a day at a time.”
Smith graduated in 2022, with both practical experience and a job offer at Duke Energy in Plainfield, Ind., where she interned in college.
She found a natural fit in Grid Management, where she works today, alongside other engineers who implement smart technology that helps ensure customers have power when and where they need it.
The smart grid can reroute service around problems, reducing the likelihood a customer is impacted by an outage. This self-healing technology helped avoid more than 1.4 million outages in 2022, saving over 7.2 million hours of customer outage time across the six states Duke Energy serves.
From engineers who operate power plants to lineworkers who connect customers to the grid, Duke Energy employs nearly 2,400 military veterans, Director of Talent Acquisition and Workforce Development Ron Wages said.
“They help make us better,” said Wages, who inspires his team of recruiters to work with military organizations as they seek skilled workers with diverse backgrounds and experiences to lead the company to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Veterans understand the importance of safety, adherence to process and procedure and exhibit an inherent active caring for the team member next to them,” Wages said. “This is the foundation of providing safe, reliable, affordable and increasingly clean energy.”
Smith, a former battle captain in the Army’s tactical communications network, knows the importance of reliable service.
She offered air support to service members in the Middle East as they maneuvered through Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and the country of Bahrain, east of Saudi Arabia.
“Sharing intelligence data is critical to successful missions on the battlefield,” she said. “That’s not possible without the ability to communicate.”
After her deployment to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom, Smith served two tours in South Korea, one spent protecting the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea.
“Meeting so many diverse people of other backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities taught me to adapt, to understand people’s unique needs and how best they receive information,” Smith said. “There’s also that camaraderie factor. You support your team when they need help.”
Her colleague, electrical engineer Gary Fry, joked that Smith’s ability to bring the team together is rare among engineers.
“We have an eclectic group,” Fry said. “And some of us are what I like to call ‘pencil heads,’ meaning we’re more technically minded than we are social. Marsha’s got an attention to detail, while also being energetic and bubbly, so her being adept at both helps keep our group engaged.”
An engaged workforce fuels success, said Rick Grant, vice president of grid operations at Duke Energy. In the same way veterans are supported by an employee resource group called Together We Stand, which aims to ease the transition to civilian life, the company offers support to team members like Smith who come in through internships and co-ops.
These programs help the company make more informed hiring decisions, while students glean insights into what it would be like to work at Duke Energy.
“An interview is a two-way street,” Grant said. “In the same way our teams are evaluating if someone is a good fit, the students get to see behind the curtain. They meet other engineers, work with them on projects and learn new skills while experiencing what our culture is like – the intangibles you don’t get by researching a company on the internet. That’s as attractive as anything we have to offer.”
As an intern, Smith took the opportunity to listen and ask questions. She viewed it as a bunch of small windows to show people that she could be an asset to the team.
Mike Simms noticed. As manager of grid management in the Midwest, he recruits engineers.
“We’ve hired a lot of talented engineers from that program, including three of the eight engineers on my team,” Simms said. “They’ve all done well, and in learning and developing new skills, they’ve earned promotions to higher roles in Grid Management. And other engineering groups hire, too. It’s been an excellent feeder pool for full-time hiring.”
In addition to Smith’s work on the smart grid in Indiana, she provides day-to-day operations support for Duke Energy’s Distribution Control Center, where a team of about 90 people communicates with customers and technicians in the field.
“We assist the DCC by investigating equipment failures or researching customer issues, fixing what we can remotely or ensuring the right team gets out there,” Smith said. “It really suits my personality.”
Her passion for the work began as a high schooler in the Four Corners of New Mexico. Smith’s dad was a construction manager at an energy company who worked with other engineers. She had an interest in electronics, how parts come together to make something work.
Smith’s role as an electrical engineer is a blend of both integrated project management and system interface functionality. That’s not to say it was easy, she said, reflecting on societal expectations that urged her to embrace a different path.
“The women in my family haven’t explored a degree in something as technical as electrical engineering. Many were stay-at-home moms,” Smith said. “So, there’s a natural inclination to question if I can be both a great mom and a successful engineer. I realize now that my journey has been to challenge my own mentality. Because at one point, I thought I’d never get here.”