Our first indigenous electrical engineer - Ben Lange

Talk about pressure. As well as being part of the team that manages and responds to incidents such as fatalities, outages and other serious high-voltage incidents associated with the Ausgrid electricity network, Ben Lange is a role model and mentor to a number of indigenous people. Yet he seems to handle it with grace and good humour.

“I guess in the spot that I’m in I see myself as having the best of two different worlds,” says Australia’s first known indigenous person to graduate from electrical engineering. “I think life is about having a go at opportunities. It is worth looking into them and making that opportunity not just for yourself but for others too. So if I grab a whole lot of skills, I think ‘where can I then use them?’”

Ben went to a regional school north of Cairns in Far North Queensland “in the middle of a cane field”. His father and grandfather were the two major professional influences in his childhood. His dad was a civil engineer from Melbourne who had met his mum on Groote Eylandt, off the east Arnhem Land coast, while working in Arnhem Land drilling for uranium deposits. Ben says they spent nearly every holiday with his mum’s family on Groote Eylandt. “That’s where grandad and that were brought up as kids,” he says.

A young Ben would watch the mechanical skills with which his multilingual grandfather could fix almost anything – a result of previously working for the mission on Groote Eylandt and the defence  forces in WWII. “He used to always say to us grandkids that for the bettering of indigenous people, we’ve got to become educated. He drove that hard into us.”

From 2000 to 2004, Ben undertook his Bachelor of Electrical Engineering, initially under a Cooperative Scholarship and then a cadetship with the NSW Department of Energy, Utilities and  Sustainability.

He completed a thesis on the psychological and environmental effects of wind farms. “The subjects I did well at were power engineering subjects,” he says.

But while at UNSW, he also became involved in the indigenous tutoring program, and co-wrote a paper that appeared in the renowned scientific journal Nature on the acoustics and science of playing the didgeridoo. “Some of that research made front page news of some newspapers in Germany,” he says.

After stints with the department and Bovis Lend Lease, Ben joined Ausgrid in 2006, volunteering for a graduate placement in the Upper Hunter, where he rode on the skids of helicopters in order to carry out pre-bushfire aerial checks of power lines.

His job now entails planning and developing multifaceted responses to major unplanned network outages and serious incidents. “My main responsibility is looking at the event of the most catastrophic type of outage – what we call a black start. The extent of it could be the whole east coast. Working out how we respond and delivering a revised and refined plan. How to rebuild the network technically as well as political and logistical issues.”

In an incident involving an injury, his job may involve such fine details as organising counselling or helping a family with hospital visits, or macro issues if the network has been seriously damaged.

He says the biggest challenge in his job is finding the balance between planning and responding, assessing risks and managing risks. “We can become very tunnel visioned as engineers – it’s good to have those people who are very specific and get down to the nitty gritty – but a modern engineer has to consider the wider community and workforce,” Ben says.

“I think the industry is developing a lot technically. We’re improving the health and safety still, and we have to continually refine our risk management plans.”

Ben takes his mentoring role as a professional Aboriginal person very seriously and says it has been particularly exciting to be involved in the indigenous pre-apprenticeship program at Ausgrid. “In the past six years the program has grown from a handful of indigenous employees to a huge group of indigenous apprentices, now graduating into line workers, or electricians, and there is another electrical engineer.”

Like many things in Ben’s life, his career goals have a community focus that stretch back to his indigenous roots. “I want to develop my own skills, so I can one day be a part of delivering better infrastructure to indigenous communities – even my own community back on Groote Eylandt.”