Pam Boschee, Managing Editor
As the industry looks ahead to the prospect of power plant operator shortages in the next decade, Bismarck State College (BSC) in Bismarck, N.D., is ramping up its offerings in order to provide solid education for this unique, but growing, niche.
For over 25 years, BSC has been training students for careers as operators in the power plant industry. Originally started as an on-campus program to meet a local need for trained operators in the many power plants located in central North Dakota, BSC is now meeting demands for national and international manpower training by extending its reach via the Internet.
Rapid growth in training demand
Three years ago, BSC started its online power plant technology program as a pilot program (15 students) working with Western Resources. Today, the online power plant program includes 67 students, of which 23 are already in the industry and 44 are studying to prepare for entry into the industry. Additionally, 112 full-time students are enrolled in the on-campus program.
According to Lee Husfloen, a faculty member in BSC’s Energy Technology Program, since 1976 there have been about 2,000 graduates from the accredited program with an overall placement rate of 95 percent. “We have around 25 percent of our students go directly into work in related industry in North Dakota; the other 75 percent are able to get employment around the nation,” he said.
The certificate program consists of three consecutive semesters with an optional fourth semester if the student seeks an associate degree in applied science (AAS). And, Husfloen pointed out, more and more utilities are pushing for AAS as a requirement (or at least as highly preferred) for employment.
Rick Kerzman, also a faculty member, said utilities have expressed much interest in this training-not only for new hires, but also for current employees. Online students participate in live interaction with instructors through chat rooms, threaded discussions and e-mail. The courses also include graphics, audio lectures and video clips.
Current operators in plants, themselves students, interact online with people new to the program. Kerzman said, “It has been very interesting to watch some of the control center operators pick up and do some of the instruction through the threaded discussions and answer questions that other students have.”
Many utilities-such as Xcel Energy, Minneapolis-would like to see their incumbent workforces earning degrees. In addition, Xcel is considering using the BSC online program in lieu of its first year of apprenticeship.
“Companies look at quite a savings when they hire graduates of our program. They’re looking at an estimated one to two years less training needed at their expense if they hire graduates. They’re looking to save-estimates range from $40,000 to $60,000-on each graduate they hire from our program.”
BSC’s statistics indicate that if their graduates leave North Dakota to work elsewhere, about 30 percent will remain there for at least 10 years and about 70 percent will remain there for at least three years. Husfloen said, “Companies figure that if they get at least two years out of BSC students, they’ve gotten their money’s worth.”
BSC’s program serves a specialized niche and has captured the attention of utilities and students across the country. Kerzman said other community colleges have expressed interest in starting a similar program, but “when we get into conversations with the college and the college asks the question of the local utilities, ‘How many people can we expect you to employ?’, they’ll say, ‘Maybe five.’ So there really isn’t the incentive for any one particular community college to start a program.”
The online program offering has been valuable in meeting such distant training needs. BSC is working with Constellation Energy in Baltimore to allow students to earn AAS degrees. BSC offers its online program in conjunction with a local community college, which provides 15 general education credits required toward completion of study for the degree. BSC transfers and combines the credits with the successful completion of the online power plant technology training and confers the AAS to the student.
Looking to the future
In September 1999, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded a three-year grant for development and delivery of the power plant technology program online. As part of this endeavor, BSC brought industry trainers from around the country to campus last year to review their curriculum. Last month, they hosted another industry focus group to discuss apprentice training, cooperative education and incorporation of regional labs with the online program.
Also discussed were bridge courses intended to facilitate the successful completion of the power plant technology program by women and minorities, who historically have demonstrated lower graduation rates. These fundamental classes, such as hand tool identification, are intended to provide a bridge to understanding of the more advanced courses.
A new program in development with Mid-Continent Area Power Pool (MAPP) members is the system operator program, which will also lead to an AAS degree. The program will focus on training students for positions as dispatchers and power marketers. Slated to begin in September 2001, this program will initially be available only online for the first three years targeting the projected 300 students in the MAPP group. Already employed in the industry, most of these students work in shifts; therefore, an online training program delivers the flexibility necessary for their varied schedules.
For additional information on BSC’s programs, contact Bill Wahlman at 701-224-5604 or visit www.powerplanteducation.com. BSC will be presenting a panel discussion at the American Power Conference in Chicago on April 11. For conference information, visit www.apc-pennwell.com.