Duke Energy Foundation grants boost STEM, workforce development initiatives

Nuclear energy, not unlike the electric utility industry as a whole, is facing many challenges over the coming years; none as daunting as the impending workforce talent gap. Currently, nearly 35 percent of the nuclear workforce is within five years of being retirement eligible. The statistics are similar in the overall electric industry.

For the industry, this poses a significant problem. However, for the eligible employee with the right skills, this represents an opportunity to land a highly lucrative and secure job. The questions, then, are how to match up employer and would-be employee, and how to equip this new workforce with the skills it will need to support a changing industry into the future.

This is a problem that Duke Energy is facing head on through initiatives to support science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Supporting effective education programs and initiatives that emphasize STEM is a critical focus for Duke Energy.

Duke Energy’s commitment to STEM education and its place in developing the industry’s workforce of tomorrow can be seen in the partnership the utility has built with Richmond Community College (RCC) in Hamlet, N.C.

In 2012, RCC leader Steve Lampley, a 40-year veteran of the utility industry, worked directly with Duke Energy to develop a two-year associate degree program to address the shortage of qualified technicians in relay and substation maintenance. The hands-on program provided graduates the skill sets needed to be of immediate benefit to the utility industry.

With the help of the Duke Energy Foundation, Richmond Community College was able to build a working substation on its campus to help train the next generation of electric utility workers.

The college actually built a substation and relay lab on its campus, providing a real-world environment in which to train. Much of the equipment came from the switchyard at Duke Energy’s Harris Nuclear Plant in New Hill, N.C. Since the program’s inception, the Duke Energy Foundation has supported RCC’s work with nearly $500,000 in grants, in addition to donated equipment.

“These jobs are for life,” said Lampley, who recognized as he was retiring that there was not a pipeline of people to do the work he had done over his career. “The jobs are great. The pay is great. In three years, most of these guys will make over $100,000.

“People from other parts of the country can come here and take the program and go home and utilities will hire them because they are in demand everywhere.”

The electric utility substation and relay technology program at RCC combines classroom theory with real-world, hands-on instruction.

Getting an earlier start on a career

Earlier this year, RCC received another $250,000 investment from the Duke Energy Foundation to create a Structural Design Career Pathway at Scotland (Laurinburg, N.C.) High School. The money will be used to purchase and install new equipment for RCC classes to be taught to high school students on their campus.

The new structural design program will combine elements from RCC machining and mechanical engineering programs to include machining, computer-aided drafting and 3D printing. It will lay the foundation for an associate degree in structural design to be launched by 2018.

“There are currently no programs in structural design in the North Carolina Community College System, so this initiative will be a first of its kind,” said RCC President Dr. Dale McInnis. “By implementing the degree program, we hope to show students that skilled trades are a viable career path and to provide them with the foundational skills to enter the workforce upon graduating from high school, as well as skills that will allow them to continue their education.”

“Richmond Community College is committed to equipping its students with the skills needed to compete in emerging sectors of today’s economy,” said Duke Energy District Manager David McNeill. “We’re pleased to continue our partnership with the college to strengthen the region’s education-to-workforce initiative.

“By fostering a growing interest in the STEM fields for students, our communities will continue growing and producing skilled workers who bring new thinking and innovation to our lives,” McNeill said.