When 28-year-old Valerie Choy graduated with honours in chemical engineering from the National University of Singapore in 2008, she admitted that the prospect of a job in the power sector was not even on the radar. 

"I wanted a career that was both challenging and meaningful. But the power sector? 

"I don't think fresh graduates are very excited by working in a power generation company and being stuck in the day to day," she says.

"It was hard to see the long-term benefits of joining the power sector. They had an image problem." 

Ms Choy's reaction was typical of a graduate - one that was highlighted by a 2011 study by the Energy Market Authority (EMA) and the SingaporeWorkforce Development Agency. 

In the end, Ms Choy joined another aspect of the sector - energy consulting - but the power sector in Singapore is at a critical crossroads, dealing with an ageing technical workforce yet not attracting much interest among the young. 

And for all the advancements that the sector has made in technology and know-how, it is this people problem that now threatens to cause the next major trip. 

So in March last year, a new Power Sector Manpower Task Force was set up. 

Led by former Singapore Power Group chief executive Quek Poh Huat, it looked to delve deeper into the issues and propose responses. 

What followed was a consultation exercise involving more than 300 respondents, a "landscape" review of both local and international manpower initiatives, and then a wider seeking of input from more than 100 stakeholders, including industry leaders, government agencies and even students

The study turned up some sobering numbers. 

The median age of the power sector's technical workforce is 48 years, compared with the national median of 42. 

More than 60 per cent are over 40 years old, and less than 15 per cent are under 30. 

And the sector could not seem to hold on to its precious young. The attrition rate of young people in the sector was about 15 per cent, much higher than the 2 per cent to 3 per cent for the entire workforce. 

The implications for a nation that relies heavily on the unfailing supply of essential utilities like electricity and water to power its key manufacturing and services industries were serious. 

"If we don't have the people, we cannot keep up this performance.

"We know this will be a big challenge for us," says Mr Quek. 

In December last year, his task force proposed three key initiatives:

the establishment of a fresh talent attraction,retention and development framework; 

a sector-wide branding exercise,

and a more coordinated approach to driving manpower efforts within the industry. 

In January, they were accepted by the Government, and the wheels of change are currently in motion. 

Going upstream

Cultivating new talent means having to go as far upstream as secondary schools. 

So to infuse interest in energy-related matters at an earlier age, EMA has begun working with the Education Ministry to review the lower secondary geography curriculum. 

The idea will be to incorporate energy-related issues, such as getting students to think about the various constraints to the adoption of renewable energy. 

The revised curriculum is expected to be implemented as early as next year. 

Meanwhile, the new electrical power engineering degree course jointly run by the Singapore Institute of Technology and Newcastle University kicked off last month with its first batch of 60 students. 

A total of 380 applications were received for the course, which is the country's first undergraduate power engineering course and targetspolytechnic upgraders. 

Looking to convince more graduates to join the sector, EMA introduced the first-ever dedicated energy sector pavilion, "Powering Lives", at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University career fairs earlier this year. 

It also held Open House sessions at Singapore's largest power generation plant, Senoko Energy, and organised Energy Connect, a new national competition and seminar that connected youth with energy industry representatives. 

Work is now ongoing to develop a sector-wide competency framework and more scholarships for students at various levels. 

Clearing the air 

But will all that be enough, given the "unsexy" image of the power sector?

Industry watchers like Mr Ravi Krishnaswamy, Frost & Sullivan's vice-president of energy and environment systems practice (Asia-Pacific), are cautiously optimistic, but add that the sector needs to clear the air about what it really can offer. 

He says: "Some positions within the sector are perceived to be purely manual and on the ground. 

"Young professionals may not find them attractive - especially the cream of the crop. The beauty is that with developments in technology, the nature of these positions is changing. Those perceptions have to be fixed." 

Mr Sanjeev Gupta, Ernst & Young's Asia-Pacific transactions advisory services leader for oil and gas, agrees. 

But given the global competition for talent, he feels the sector must move faster. 

"Hiring and development need to take place more quickly and more creatively than they have in the past. Companies with strong talent management in place will be the most competitive," he says. 

One suggestion Mr Gupta has is for energy companies to continue to invest heavily in the in-house development of talent through training.

"(This) is a costly and time-consuming process, but is wholly necessary in the absence of graduates with the necessary skills and expertise," he explains. 

"The need for companies to invest in their own training programmes is becoming increasingly acute." 

In this vein, Singapore Power launched "Edge", a graduate development programme, in July. 

Fresh graduates undergo one full year of structured training, followed by at least two job rotations to various parts of the company's operations over the four years that follow. 

"We expose them to the various parts of the business, give them overseas postings and try and keep things interesting," Mr Quek explains.

Still, it will be tough going and may take many years to change an image of the sector which is, for the average man in the street, dominated by the heat and dirt of pipes and tanks. 

Until then, Singapore's power sector may get the occasional hand from market forces, says Mr Gupta. 

"Every profession has ups and downs but we will always need energy.

"And in five or six years when the talent crunch is at its most acute, salaries will evolve and things will right themselves," he adds, before giving, perhaps, the ultimate sales pitch.

"This is a sector without a sunset."