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Indian River State College (IRSC) in Florida will play a major role in training skilled nuclear employees with the establishment of the Regional Center for Nuclear Education and Training (RCNET).
RCNET, the first center of its kind in the country, will help serve a growing need for skill nuclear workers. By 2030, the U.S. will need 41,000 nuclear technicians, with more than half of the job openings located in the Southeast.
The center will serve as a “model of best practices for training programs across the Southeast,” IRSC President Edwin Massey said in a statement.
The goal for RCNET—which is funded through a $3.1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education grant—is to serve as a central resource for curriculum and for train-the-trainer programs for faculty and staff. It will also play a role in facilitating nuclear industry collaborations.
“We want to make sure training is consistent and reliable,” said Jose Farinos, dean of advanced technology at the college.
The center will be housed in IRSC’s Brown Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which is set to open in January. The building’s nuclear energy lab will include a dynamic flow-loop simulator to offer an authentic training environment for students in IRSC’s Power Plant Technology Institute.
Partnering with IRSC on this endeavor are Central Virginia Community College, Chattanooga State Community College in Tennessee, Midlands Technical College in South Carolina and North Carolina State University. Another 15 colleges, three universities, 12 government agencies and 27 industry partners will participate in the four-year project.
Building on relationships
IRSC already has a strong partnership with Florida Power and Light (FPL) and is part of the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program (NUCP). As a member of that program, graduates get real-world experience at FPL’s nearby St. Lucie nuclear power plant with paid summer internships. They also earn not only their degree, but a nationally-recognized, portable NUCP certificate.
The IRSC program has a 98 percent completion rate, and its job placement rate is nearly as high, according to college officials. Most graduates go straight to work at the St. Lucie plant. Apprentice-level employees can earn salaries exceeding $55,000.
“We’ve never had a program that’s been more successful,” said Al Roberts, IRSC’s vice president of applied science and technology.
A demand all over
Other community colleges are also creating or expanding their nuclear tech programs to meet anticipated workforce demands.
In 2009, Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania launched a nuclear engineering technology (NET) program in response to an expected shortage of nuclear technicians in the region over the next five years.
Industry partners power nuclear training efforts
“At the time we started the program, Exelon [the largest owner and operator of nuclear plants in the U.S.] anticipated the retirement of more than 200 operators over the next several years,” said Thomas Tucker, assistant professor of engineering and NET coordinator. “Even though the economic recession may have prompted some operators to postpone retirement, the fact remains that few operators are under the age of 50. There is no one in the pipeline.”
Those statistics, coupled with the U.S. Department of Energy’s estimate of a 20 percent increase in the use electricity by 2030, make the nuclear engineering industry an attractive career option for students.
It is the lack of training programs—rather than safety concerns—that have deterred individuals from careers as nuclear technicians, according to training officials. In the past, technicians were trained on the job, arriving at the plant with only a high school diploma or experience in the armed forces. However, today those jobs require at least an associate degree, Tucker said.
“These are the people who operate the plant, who make the critical decisions,” Tucker said. “Today’s nuclear technicians are expected to enter the field with the knowledge of physics, chemistry and nuclear engineering, all of which they can obtain through an associate degree program.”
Case in point
For student Arianne Masten, the NET program is a building block for her future career as an electrical engineer. Masten first enrolled at the college as an engineering science major, but when the NET program was introduced, she changed her focus. In May, she became the program’s first graduate, earning an associate in applied science degree in nuclear engineering technology.
Masten still plans to pursue a four-year degree, but she’ll work as a nuclear operator on the way to her goal.
“Exelon has great job placement and tuition assistance,” said Masten, who interned last summer at Exelon’s Oyster Creek facility in Forked River, N.J.
Masten was able to complete the NET program quickly, thanks to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Scholars Program, which enabled her to be a full-time student. The program offers full-tuition scholarships for academically talented and financially eligible students majoring in STEM and related disciplines.
In addition to a scholarship, Tucker noted another incentive that students have for entering the NET program: job security and pay.
“In this economy, there aren’t many industries that are hiring, and that will continue to be hiring for quite some time,” he said. “Also, there aren’t many degree programs—associate or bachelor’s—where a graduate can start at $70,000, and that’s without overtime.”
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges