Pennsylvania College of Technology grad helps ‘power’ New Jersey
The parental warning is etched in Lester Wrobel’s memory. In the midst of dropping him off at Pennsylvania College of Technology, his parents delivered a stark message before returning to their New Jersey home: “If you fail, head west, because we won’t be opening the door for you.”
During the next few years, there were moments when Wrobel seemed destined for a westward journey. Lack of focus and subpar grades blocked the on-ramp to Interstate 80 east. But with supportive Penn College faculty and his fortitude, Wrobel persevered to earn more than an invitation home. He helps power his parents’ house, along with 2.3 million other electric customers throughout New Jersey.
“I would compare it to the fundamentals of electricity,” Wrobel said, pointing to the irony. “There always needs to be a return path in an electrical circuit for the light to be on.”
Wrobel is a principal technology engineer for Public Service Enterprise Group, the largest gas and electric service provider in the Garden State. The 2013 graduate ensures that all electric distribution assets are connected to PSEG’s central monitoring system. On the side, he operates his own industrial automation consulting business.
Impressive for someone who remembers being labeled “not college material” by his high school guidance counselor. Not that Wrobel can blame her. He cops to poor grades and little motivation while growing up in Hillsdale, New Jersey, just outside of New York City.
“I didn’t have engagement. It was a lack-of-drive issue,” said Wrobel, who resides with his fiancee in Florham Park, New Jersey.
Yet he aspired to attend college and learned an important life lesson from the dispiriting interaction with his guidance counselor.
“You shouldn’t let a bad experience dictate your future,” he said. “It’s how you react to a problem that determines who you are.”
Today, he supervises 16 other engineers for a company recognized as the most reliable utility in the mid-Atlantic region for 18 straight years by PA Consulting, a national industry benchmarking group.
“I love what I do because of the people I work with and the exposure to technology,” he said.
Wrobel describes his job at PSEG as “applying automation to electricity.” The automated electric distribution equipment – more than 25,000 microprocessor-based controllers – under his domain is used companywide for constant monitoring, customer service restoration and support, and system planning.
“There’s no typical day. I kind of relate it to working in the emergency room,” he said. “You can come in with a plan, but out of nowhere, something can occur, and the next thing you know, your priorities have changed. You need to have a reasonable level of flexibility.
“I have elements of my job that I can relate to specific conversations I had at Penn College or even some of my labs and projects. I learned so much about myself, about what is practical in engineering and how to get things done because of the college.”
A guidance counselor assigned to one of Wrobel’s friends encouraged him to visit Penn College. “I guess he saw that I had something in me, that I had potential,” Wrobel explained.
His parents, who emigrated from Poland in the 1980s, took him to a Penn College Open House. Wrobel’s father, an industrial engineer, nudged him toward electronics and computer engineering technology because of the fertile career possibilities. The college’s quality facilities and welcoming faculty convinced him to apply.
“I told them my grades weren’t awesome,” Wrobel recalled. “But they encouraged me and told me they would work with me. They said that they would help align me to have a good life.”
The faculty lived up to that commitment, not that Wrobel made it easy.
“I was far from a model student. I was a young kid in college having that temptation of being out with friends and all the college social life stuff,” he admitted. “It’s mind-boggling that they had the patience they did with me.”
Randall L. Moser, assistant professor of electronics and computer engineering technology, remembered having multiple meetings “encouraging” Wrobel to take school seriously.
“Lester had a devilish attitude and wanted to have as much fun as a college campus could provide,” Moser said. “I knew he had ability. His dad asked me to put pressure on Lester, so he would learn the importance of working in the automation field and have a better work ethic.”
“Early on, I noticed that Lester was easily distracted from his schoolwork by social activities,” said Jeffery L. Rankinen, associate professor of electronics and computer engineering technology. “He always had us smiling and laughing. He was fortunate to have parents providing motivation to graduate. Also, Lester developed a network of peers and faculty who provided support for getting projects completed.”
Wrobel relied on that network after repeating a few classes. He matured, and respect for his parents and teachers inspired him to continue with school when quitting proved tempting. Wrobel also discovered he enjoyed the hands-on work required by the curriculum.
“They taught us the theory and that theory is important, but it was important to know what you were going to do with that theory,” he said. “The key to my success was the hands-on and lab-based approach to technology and engineering that allowed me to quantify and see the science in practice.”
“Lester often pursued his projects from a different perspective than our teachings,” said Scott D. Neuhard, assistant professor of electronics and computer engineering technology. “I often found myself saying, ‘That’s a new approach. Give it a try.’ He put time into projects, and they were successful. That is the kind of thought process and intrinsic motivation I value when I advise young minds to continue their education.”
Wrobel followed Neuhard’s advice, and the former lackluster student earned a master’s degree in engineering/industrial management at Rowan University in 2016. That credential, combined with his bachelor’s degree in electronics and computer engineering technology from Penn College and outgoing personality, led to his hiring and rise through the ranks at PSEG, where he oversees more than $500 million in electric distribution projects.
“Being able to interface with different types of people is really why I think I’ve been successful up to this point. I love people. I really do,” Wrobel said. “Penn College fostered that because we had small class sizes, and people got to share the experience with each other.
“I’m very grateful for that institution and the people who directly influenced me. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today if I didn’t have that place sculpt me. I would have a totally different life.”
Instead, Wrobel is “home.”
“This may sound corny, but when I drive through New Jersey and see all the lights on, it gives me joy knowing that I had some hand in that,” he said.