MISO’s Virginia Shafer: A pioneer shattering career boundaries in the power industry

Virginia Shafer stands near the MISO South control room as she prepares for another shift as generation balancing authority.

Virginia Shafer says electricity runs through her veins. For the past three decades she has helped in some way guide this lifeblood into homes and businesses.

First schooled in secretarial science in the 1970s, Shafer possessed a drive to learn and stretch her knowledge.

“I came into the working world at the right time,” Shafer explains. “Back then, women had limited career choices. The jobs were stereotypical. Then the Mary Tyler Moore TV show became a hit – and helped show a strong, independent woman and having a career. That made an impression.”

Shafer first joined the electric industry at Northern States Power.

“NSP hired me as a secretary at the service center in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,” Shafer recalls. “That’s where I first met Clair Moeller.”

Moeller, now executive vice president at MISO, had joined NSP as an engineer just out of college. He remembers Shafer as a trailblazer.

“Virginia is a true fearless pioneer who didn’t let the ‘system’ as it was in 1980 hold her back,” Moeller says. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that would help shape the course of Shafer’s career path.

“NSP required apprentice linemen to enroll in a 72-week training program,” Shafer says. “Clair was one of the teachers, and he kept urging me to join. I did – and after completing the program, I became one of the first women in NSP history to graduate.”

Shafer soon married and moved to Texas, but the apprentice program had already sparked the beginning of a new career.

After joining Texas Electric Service Co. initially as a secretary, Shafer after a year transferred to become an engineering analyst with Fort Worth Transmission.

“I was the first female hired in that role,” she remembers. “It was the beginning of an incredible journey from a behind-the-desk job to a role previously reserved for men.”

In 14 years, Shafer saw the ins and outs of power line construction and maintenance. She was primarily responsible for verifying nameplate data on new equipment in the computer database to allow maintenance tracking. She also field-tested equipment.

“I drove a pick-up truck and followed the progress of transmission line and substation construction,” she recollects. “I’ve been on top of power transformers, inside autotransformer tanks, flown in a crop duster to check for pole damage, and watched live wire, bare-hand conductor repair from a bucket truck.

“I saw substations built from the ground up,” she adds. “I got to see some beautiful and remote areas of Texas.”

In 2000, Shafer returned to the upper Midwest when her husband, Brian, took a promotion in Southeastern Wisconsin.

The move again placed Shafer at the right place and time for another career leap. She accepted an opportunity to join Wisconsin Public Power Inc. as a system operator. During eight years with WPPI, Shafer witnessed MISO’s initial operations.

“MISO was in Day 1 operations providing transmission services to its members, and I was on shift at WPPI on April 1, 2005, at the start of the MISO Day 2 market,” she says.

In late 2007, Shafer was on the phone with a MISO regional generation dispatcher when he mentioned a control room opening at the young ISO.

“He encouraged me to apply for the position – and I did,” Shafer says. “Several weeks later I was hired and began working in St. Paul. I began the position before the start of the ancillary services market, MISO Day 3.”

At MISO, Shafer found old friends. “I was surprised and pleased when our paths crossed 30 years later in the St. Paul control room as she joined MISO,” Moeller says.

Seven years later, Shafer was in the middle of another MISO first on June 1, 2015: the opening of MISO South’s state-of-the-art control center in Little Rock.

As a generation balancing authority, Shafer and her colleagues serve much like “air traffic controllers” for the power grid. She helps monitor and control the flow of power to ensure the grid is constantly balanced to serve the region’s needs.

“What an honor it has been to spend the last 10 years of my career working at MISO,” Shafer says. “It isn’t very often in life that you find a group of people that tell you they want you to succeed and truly mean it. That’s the way it is at MISO.”

Shafer says patience and persistence – along with inspiration from friends like Moeller –have been ingredients for success throughout her career.

“This has been an incredible journey,” she concludes. “It wouldn’t have been possible without that early push from my friend and boss, Clair. Without his insistence and the guidance of other mentors over the years, I might never have realized the potential to stretch those stereotypical boundaries.”

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