When Jason Ward, a highly trained information technology professional, left corporate America for EnergyUnited EMC last December, he knew what he didn’t know.

“I was brand new to the co-op field,” said Ward, a cybersecurity specialist for the Statesville, North Carolina-based cooperative. “I’d been doing security a long time in large companies, so I was looking for ways to learn the co-op space.”

So, when NRECA launched an IT Mentoring Program pilot in January, Ward, who has 15 years of experience in IT and a master’s degree in professional studies in homeland security information security and forensics from Penn State, applied as a mentee.

Ward was paired with Mike Gayda, security analyst at Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative in Dade City, Florida. Gayda provided Ward with a foundation of electric co-op protocols, how co-ops serve consumer-members, collaborate and support each other in finding IT solutions.

Having a mentor “really helped me understand the culture of a cooperative,” said Ward. “In IT and cybersecurity, being successful in this role has everything to do with understanding the organization, the commitment and who you serve. The mentorship helped me to reach those goals.”

In 2021, NRECA will open the IT Mentoring Program to all co-ops. Co-op IT professionals who want to mentor should sign up in December. Mentees will apply in January and select a mentor to help meet their goals.

NRECA requires a six-month commitment to the program and provides support and discussion materials for free. An IT Mentoring Program Toolkit is available to facilitate meaningful professional connections.

“At the end of the day, we all want to help people,” said Gayda. “To have an outlet like the mentoring program to help meet that need as either a mentor or mentee is rewarding.”

The idea of an IT mentoring program for co-ops came to Shawna Ryan five months into her post as head of IT cooperative relations at NRECA.

“I was impressed with the amount of connection I saw among the IT professionals and the appetite for even more,” said Ryan. “There are fewer than three IT professionals on average in an electric co-op and one third of the electric co-ops have no IT staff at all.”

She said the mentoring program offers participants “that backup, that extra person to talk to that, statistically, is not at the co-op.”

Chad Schauf, IT director at Oakdale Electric Cooperative in Tomah, Wisconsin, and a 30-year IT veteran, including two decades at the co-op, served as a mentor in the pilot. He said a key benefit of the program is that mentees gain a reliable professional resource, “someone close by they can call and ask for help and, being cooperatives, we do that for each other.”

But he also saw the program as a way to “take my blinders off for a little bit.”

“One of the reasons I volunteered to be part of it was to get a fresh perspective from someone not in the cooperative world,” Schauf said.

Gayda, who plans to sign up again next year, agreed. “That’s what got us all in the IT industry in the first place: Every day is different, and we’re all learning.”

Electric co-ops professionals who want to participate in NRECA’s IT mentorship program should contact Shawna Ryan at Shawna.Ryan@nreca.coop.

Explore NRECA’s resources on professional development.