Regional consortia leverage nuclear career opportunities

Community College Times Commentary

Commentary Appearing in Community College Times  

By CSM President Dr. Brad Gottfried

The Beatles are acknowledged as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, rock bands ever. Although its members achieved significant success, of various degrees, as solo artists after the group disbanded in 1970, it’s fair to say they never attained the stature they had as a group where their collaborative talents as musicians, song writers and singers gave them an exalted place in music history.

That same synergy applies when the nuclear energy industry cooperates with community colleges to tailor training that meets the needs of the industry and provides excellent career paths for students.

Far too often, we read about college students earning degrees after much hard work and expense and then find a skill-set mismatch with the expectations of the workplace. Affixing blame to this dilemma is a waste of energy (no pun intended), but it is incumbent upon the colleges to work as closely as possible with industry to ensure that their educational programs include critical skills.

The partnership between the Maryland-based Constellation Energy Nuclear Group (CENG)  and the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) offers an excellent example of how a cooperative venture can be beneficial to a major company, a college, and, most importantly, to students in preparing them for a rewarding career.

The nuclear energy industry has recognized that with a potential 39 percent of the current nuclear industry workforce employed at the nation’s 104 operating plant eligible for retirement by the middle of this decade, there will be a shortfall of more than 25,000 skilled workers. The industry must replenish its workforce to avoid any skills shortage and be ready for possible expansion.

The nuclear industry realized this trend a number of years ago and is effectively addressing it. CSM partnered with CENG in 2008 to develop a nuclear technology program that trains mechanical, electrical, and instrumentation and control maintenance technicians to work in commercial nuclear energy. Other community colleges are also working with local and regional companies that operate nuclear power plants to develop programs geared to their job requirements.

The right skills

The key is making sure that community college programs are in alignment with the industry needs. This means a standardization to ensure quality control and consistency. That’s where the nuclear industry’sNuclear Uniform Curriculum Program (NUCP) comes into play.

NUCP is composed of 38 community colleges across the country that is ensuring that the next generation of nuclear industry workers is being trained in a cohesive manner that addresses the needs of the plants. It is the only recognized energy education program in the U.S.

When a student graduates from an approved program, he or she receives an associate degree from the college and the NUCP issues a transportable certificate that certifies completion of the industry’s required learning objectives. This certificate is what guarantees the graduate’s portability in the industry.

A well-paying career

In 2010, the first graduates of this program from Chattanooga State Community College in Tennessee and Salem Community College in New Jersey moved into careers with average salaries ranging from $66,000 to $72,000 a year. Since nuclear plants operate for up to 60 years, it’s as close to a lifetime guarantee of employment as possible.

The partnership between CSM and CENG has been an unqualified success. The company has provided us with more than $300,000 to develop our nuclear technology degree program, including the creation of a welding lab at our Center for Trades and Energy Training. In addition, $75,000 has been dedicated to scholarships for the program with that funding leveraged to receive more than $100,000 from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants for additional scholarships and other program costs. Nineteen students received scholarships in the first year of the program and first graduates are expected in May 2012. 

If you think students in this program learn in a sterile, ivory tower classroom environment, you couldn’t be more incorrect. There is constant interaction with the employees at CENG’s major nuclear energy plant, Calvert Cliffs, and students in the program have coops at this facility. In addition to the funds to purchase equipment and provide scholarships and the coops, CENG provides access to recruiters and hiring managers at neighboring employers involved with the NUCP, and subject-matter experts that help the college establish its curriculum and teach courses until our instructors were ready to teach the industry specific learning objectives.

A nice fringe benefit was that the program helped garner the support from the state of Maryland and Calvert County to fund a building on our Prince Frederick Campus that will house our nuclear technology program.

The CSM and CENG collaborative is just one example of the many interactions occurring throughout the country involving community colleges and the nuclear power industry. U.S. This collaboration provides an educational blending of talent that evokes the smooth instrumental coordination and tight vocal harmonies that would make the Beatles proud.