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Utility developing next generation of workers

POSTED: July 10, 2017 10:01 a.m.
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Lineman Brandon Harpe teaches work-study student Nick Bolton the ins and outs of setting and wiring utility poles during his first week of Learners Today, Leaders Tomorrow at Coastal EMC.

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Five area high school students began work last month as part of Coastal Electric Cooperative’s "Learners Today, Leaders Tomorrow" program.

For eight weeks during their summer break, these rising seniors will gain on-the-job training from professionals in a variety of fields such as customer service, engineering and operations, marketing, communications and employee safety.

"We want to help bring experience-based education to the forefront, and apprenticeships, starting with our high school students in their senior year, is actually the model to fill those jobs," said Coastal CEO Whit Hollowell.

The work study program was conceived by Daphanie Harris, Coastal’s human resources manager, and was launched concurrently with a White House declaration proclaiming Workforce Development Week in mid-June.

"During high school, students discover a lot about who they are and what types of careers they would like to pursue," Harris said. "We recognize that students are not always aware of the many rewarding careers that the co-op has to offer, so we hope our work-study program will help bridge that gap.

The average age among the nation’s 400,000 utility line workers is 57. Within the next five years, more than half those experienced workers are expected to retire.

A lineman requires nearly 7,000 hours of training. That’s about four years – roughly equal in time to obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

Electric cooperatives like Coastal have always offered apprenticeship programs, not only to high school students but also to workers seeking full-time employment. Programs like Learners Today, Leaders Tomorrow are evidence that Coastal is increasing efforts to prepare skilled women and men to replace the retiring utility workforce.

"Creating a skilled workforce is important for a community’s success, and programs like the work-based learning program in which Coastal Electric Cooperative participates help to do just that," said Anna Chafin, CEO of the Development Authority of Bryan County. "These programs are great because they teach kids skills early on that complement the lessons learned in the classroom. We are fortunate here in Bryan County to have a school system and local businesses that are so invested in making sure Bryan County’s workforce is always able to meet the needs of new and existing businesses and industries."

Coastal also provides hands-on learning opportunities for area trade schools, as the cooperative donates retired utility vehicles every few years to the schools’ automotive departments. Students gain knowledge as they roll up their sleeves to tinker with and repair the vehicles.

Coastal is also involved with area high schools to offer opportunities to women and minorities to seek work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a news release from the utility said. An electric vehicle project the cooperative introduced this past school year has sparked interest among students who may not have been previously exposed to STEM-based skills.

"I intended to major in art, but I am thinking of doing engineering now," said Jelissa Estrada, a First Presbyterian Christian Academy student who helped build a working electric vehicle this year as part of a STEM class. "I would have never imagined wanting to do something like that until this class. It was a big eye-opener for me."

The Coastal Electric Cooperative Foundation donated the go-kart-style electric car kit to Estrada’s school, along with Bradwell Institute and Richmond Hill High School, where student Jaquelyn Petrello had a similar enlightening experience.

"Working on this electric vehicle inspired me to go into environmental engineering and design," Petrello said. "I think it’s amazing that Coastal Electric donated this incredible project to us."

The cooperative plans to expand its Learners Today, Leaders Tomorrow program next year, as well as continuing to support local workforce development and STEAM initiatives.

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