“Grit, intelligence and a willingness to work.” That’s what a successful student in Gaston College’s Nuclear Technology Program looks like, according to Virgil Cox, the school’s Dean of Engineering and Industrial Technologies. It’s an academically rigorous program that prepares students to enter the training program for non-licensed nuclear plant operators. Although the program only takes two years to complete, “It can be a real challenge,” says Cox.
For students interested in the nuclear energy industry, particularly nuclear operations, community college programs like the one at Gaston College are not the typical choice. “The majority of new hires in nuclear operations are former Navy or graduates with four-year engineering degrees,” says Scott Warren, a nuclear control room supervisor at McGuire Nuclear Station in Huntersville, N.C. But, Warren adds, there is a desire to hire local talent, a desire that can more easily be met through partnerships with local community colleges.
Recruiting local talent is just one reason Duke Energy’s nuclear plants are interested in working with community colleges. As the existing workforce begins to retire, the need for technical nuclear plant workers is increasing. Additionally, there is competition for individuals exiting the nuclear Navy, putting pressure on this traditional pipeline for skilled nuclear workers. “Since the program at Gaston only takes two years, students are typically young when they graduate,” says Warren. “This potentially provides our nuclear plants with workers looking for long-term careers, which, in turn, helps us better plan for the future.”
Seeing these changing workforce dynamics, in 2008, Duke Energy began working with Gaston College to develop a program for nuclear power plant operators. “I was delighted to help start this program because I had been a naval officer and had been associated with the naval nuclear training program,” says Cox. In fact, Cox has brought the nuclear industry full circle from serving on the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, to teaching students to operate current-day nuclear reactors.
The Nuclear Technology Program includes technical coursework, as well as 320 co-op hours with Duke Energy during the summer between the first and second year. This summer, four students interned at McGuire Nuclear Station. Warren, who has worked closely with the interns from Gaston College, says the overall experience has been positive. “I’ve told all the classes I’ve worked with that they will get out of their time at McGuire what they put into it.” One of this year’s interns, Dakota Hood, says he felt like he got a lot out of the program and the internship experience in particular. “I enjoyed my internship very much. It was a great learning experience and I grew a lot in just 12 weeks.”
While the Nuclear Technology Program is small, graduating only a handful of students every year, it’s opening up new career paths for students interested in nuclear energy. Hood, who learned about the program from a friend, says his search for an exciting career led him to the nuclear industry. “I decided to enroll because I wanted to be in a unique field that gave me the ability to do something a little bit different every day,” says Hood.
The Nuclear Technology Program at Gaston College is one of several community college programs Duke Energy works with to train future nuclear employees. For example, Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, N.C., offers a Nuclear Technology program similar to Gaston’s, including an internship opportunity at nearby Brunswick Nuclear Plant.
These and other community college programs serving the nuclear energy are part of a larger industry effort to address changing workforce needs. To ensure the right people are in the right places at the right times, nuclear energy leaders developed the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum (NUC) to make training consistent among schools and relevant to current business needs. While not all community college programs formally follow the NUC, most adhere to its principles and high standards.
As the industry continues to evolve, utilities like Duke Energy hope more students will pursue a career in nuclear energy and take advantage of local community college training programs to realize their aspirations.
Header photo (pictured left to right): William “Nick” Carter, Dakota Hood, Virgil Cox, Nathan Simmons, Braxton Rikard, Thomas “Tom” Douthit and Scott Warren