This month The Professional Edge chats with Jason Whitelaw, Engineer-in-Training, an electrical systems engineer working for the Generation Technical Services Group at SaskPower.
Tell us about your personal and professional background.
I was born and raised in Regina. After high school, I went to Calgary to find a job to pay for my university. I found a job in a woodworking shop, and was offered the opportunity to take an apprenticeship in cabinetmaking, but I always knew that the job was just a means to an end and that I was destined for engineering. I came back to study at the U of R in 2009.
Why did you choose to go into [engineering/geoscience]?
As early as grade school, I always felt that I was going to become an engineer. When I was a child, I always felt compelled to figure out how things worked. I disassembled and reassembled things until I could figure out how they worked. I built my first computer at the age of 12 from scratch using parts from several non-working computers. My mom’s side of the family all comes from farming backgrounds so I’m no stranger to working on farm equipment. One time, I was helping my uncle fix some grease lines on his combine. He said to me, “If you become an engineer and you ever design a part like this, I’ll kill you!” That always stuck with me – that as engineers the things we work on might look good on paper but in the field, something as simple as a grease fitting could prove impractical for maintenance and result in unnecessary down-time.
What was your biggest challenge in college?
It was not a challenge so much as an opportunity. In 2010-11, I went on a student exchange to Mexico. It was a tremendous experience that allowed me to learn a lot of soft skills not normally taught in engineering. I married my wife just before departing to Mexico that year and she moved down there with me. Back at the U of R, I served as VP Professional Affairs for two years followed by President of the Regina Engineering Students’ Society for two years. I have also served on numerous other committees and groups, and participated in countless activities during my time at the university. I was a participant and student leader of the U of R Engineering Canstruction team. Throughout our participation in this event, our team raised in excess of $20,000 for the Regina Food Bank.
What was your first job after college?
Just before my final year, I got a job opportunity with SaskPower as a summer co-op student and gained permanent employment with the same workgroup after college.
Do you do any professional volunteer work?
Yes. My involvement with APEGS started when I was a student liaison to the Student Development Committee on behalf of the RESS. Then, when I became a professional member of APEGS, I became a full member of the same committee. So, I went from the student side of the table, applying for funding for student programs over to the professional side of the table handing out the money for those programs.
I also volunteer with IEEE Saskatchewan and the U of R Faculty Planning Committee looking at the feasibility of a new engineering building.
I’m involved in many other volunteer activities but the one I’m most proud of are my efforts for the Regina Engineering Equipment Fund (REEF), which I helped establish during my time at the university. REEF aims to replace the existing RESS equipment fund which has proved unsustainable. REEF is modelled after a University of Waterloo. It’s essentially an endowment fund where the goal is to raise enough money that you only spend the interest. The fund is currently growing about $600,000 per year. In three to five years, it will take over the existing equipment fund and will be able to provide at least $150,000 a year in new equipment for the faculty of engineering. In the future, this fund may assist with funds for a new engineering building in Regina.
What do you feel was your single greatest accomplishment as an engineer?
The level of responsibility I have been given on the projects I’m working on right now. Shortly after starting with SaskPower, I was put in charge of the PCB mitigation project for Power Production, which is an important environmental initiative to remove a pervasive contaminant and prevent possible environmental consequences. As a young engineer, I was trusted to carry out this environmentally sensitive multi-million dollar project. At first, I was assigned a senior engineer to supervise and mentor me, but after the first site-work season, it was decided I could manage the majority of the project alone, with bits of helpful input from my senior team members.
What is your favourite vacation spot?
Mexico. I grew an affinity for it through my student experience. I’ve learned basic Spanish and enjoy practising it. My wife and I have been there several times. We usually stick to the coasts, but we like to try a variety of things including trips to Mexico City.
Who has had the greatest influence on your life and career?
A special professional mentor for me was Dr. David DeMontigny P.Eng., Associate Dean Academic of the Faculty of Engineering at the U of R. He taught one of my first-year engineering classes and I’ve had many opportunities to interact with him over the years. I saw in him as the kind of engineer I wanted to be, so throughout university I sought out his advice.
In terms of my life in general, of course, my parents. They set me up for success. They always encouraged me to do better, to get an education and to do my best. That has rung through everything I have done through the rest of my life.