The energy industry holds some of the most lucrative and secure careers in the country, but industry experts in Georgia foresee a problem.
The workforce is aging, and more than 50 percent of employees could walk into retirement today, according to Georgia Power workforce development manager Debra Howell.
“Eventually that bubble is going to burst,” she said. “We’re going to retire. We’re not only aging, but the technology is changing so much that the skill sets are changing. We’ve got to fill that void being left.”
Now the newest high school in Richmond County is working to meet the need for the next generation of energy professionals.
The Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School has become the first high school in Georgia to adopt a career pathway curriculum designed and written by a consortium of energy experts that lays the foundation of skills and knowledge of the field.
The state Department of Education adopted the Georgia Energy and Industrial Construction Consortium’s Energy and Power curriculum as the second pathway under its Energy Cluster.
This year, the state began requiring all ninth-graders to choose one of 17 career clusters, ranging from business management to law, as part of its focus on college and career readiness.
About 20 schools adopted the initial Energy Systems pathway, but TCM is the first to take on the Energy and Power curriculum with GEICC, a consortium of more than 40 corporations, industry professionals and municipal groups.
“We’ve been pushing throughout the state in all the career clusters that we want that business and industry input,” said Mark Crenshaw, the Georgia Department of Education’s program specialist over the energy cluster. “What is it you need and desire from your employees? What can we do to make a smooth transition so our grads are prepared for your employment?”
Howell, the policy and education chairman for GEICC, said the curriculum lays out what employers want their future workers to know: foundations and implications of industry; transmission and distribution; conservation issues and renewable power; and how these concepts relate to careers.
Most energy jobs – such as engineers, design technicians, welders, nuclear technicians and industrial construction workers – require some type of post-secondary education. TCM Principal Renee Kelly said this partnership will give students access to networking and internship opportunities they might
not have gotten otherwise.
Like the other six pathways at TCM, energy students will begin dual enrollment at Augusta Tech in their junior years and graduate with some type of post-secondary certification. Kelly said that will lead to internships and job shadowing that could evolve
into a job after graduation.
“Usually when students finish a tech school, industry comes in to hire the best of those students,” Kelly said. “We’re already establishing this relationship at the high school level.”
The Energy pathway at TCM launched this semester with 50 students and one teacher, Marion Cosper, who will teach the three core classes. When the Richmond County Board of Education approved the curriculum Tuesday, it gave the green light for the school to receive about $100,000 of allocated special purpose local option sales tax funds, which help new labs purchase computers, curriculum materials, robotics tools and other supplies.
Cosper, a 25-year chemical engineer from Savannah River Site turned teacher, said he is trying to steer all his students toward long-lasting careers, whether they want to continue to Georgia Tech, Augusta Tech or go right into the workforce.
Instead of posting classroom rules on the walls, Cosper has hung signs that list “workplace ethics” and “what employers want.” As they go over resistance circuits and energy generation, students relate the material to real life.
Most of his energy students joined the Georgia Technology Student Association, where they build robots and are working on transforming a go-kart into an electric car for a competition in November.
“The whole thing about the technical career school is to get you thinking about (careers) earlier,” Cosper said. “If you go to school and have a pipe dream or no dream, you don’t do your best.”
Michael Philips, 15, said he applied for the Energy pathway at TCM to help his dream of becoming an electrical engineer like his father. He said he thought the program will provide a better foundation for college.
“I like being hands-on, I like putting things together,” he said. “It’s just fun.”
TCM accepted its first class of ninth-graders in fall 2012 and housed them at a temporary school until the $22 million building opened at Augusta Tech in January. The magnet school currently has seven career pathways students can choose from.
Kelly said the pathway partnership with GEICC offers a unique bonus, which is feeding the growing local vacancies with local students.
“We’re almost a nucleus here,” she said. “We have Plant Vogtle, SRS, all the other plants that use energy at some level. With our kids becoming a product of this environment, they don’t necessarily have to leave to find employment. It doesn’t get any better than that.”