Power packs a punch at RCC

Electric Utility Substation and Relay Technology program taking off

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

HAMLET — There’s still time.

Time to make that New Year’s resolution begin to pay off. Time to make a better life for yourself and your family. Time to obtain the necessary skills for a career with job stability and a higher-than-average pay.

From 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m today, Richmond Community College officials will be on hand at the Hamlet campus to enroll students into a wide variety of programs in time for the start of the Spring semester. Perhaps no program has a higher need right now than the Electric Utility Substation and Relay Technology curriculum. For the first time, RCC is offering the first-semester course in the Spring semester.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Johnathan Clark, 28, of Ellerbe, expects to graduate in May 2016. He figures his skills will be in high demand.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Johnathan Clark, 28, of Ellerbe, expects to graduate in May 2016. He figures his skills will be in high demand.

The classes, led by Steve Lampley along with Morteza Talebi and Osama Elmatboly, are not easy. They’re not supposed to be — there’s a lot on the line to make sure students get it right.

“What they can effect to America’s power grid … they can knock a nuclear unit off line, or put a town in the dark,” Lampley said.

As long as the work substation and relay technicians is good, the general public will never know they’re there. When an error is made — well, just ask the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens led the San Francisco 49ers 28-6 in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. After a 34-minute blackout, the 49ers rallied to make it a game before the Ravens made a key defensive stop and secured a 34-31 victory.

The blackout, according to a Fox Sports report, was the Neilsen’s second-highest rated program of the calendar year by drawing 106 million viewers — second only to the game itself, some 109 million viewers. When errors are made, people take notice.

“If you’re in this business,” said Lampley, a former Duke Energy worker, “you know what happened.”

The energy company said a protective relay “did not perform as expected. The company that made the relay said there was nothing wrong with the relay.”

Pinpointing the cause of the blackout is rather simple, Lampley said: “Somebody set the relay incorrectly.”

Talebi believes RCC’s program is the only one in the country like it. Universities shuttered their power programs years ago due to a lack of demand. Well, the demand is back.

“There is a big need for these technicians,” Talebi said.

Johnathan Clark is a third-semester student in the program, which he expects to graduate in May 2016. This is not the first career choice for the 28-year-old Ellerbe man, but it might be his best.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Wesley Norris, 33, of Coats, already has been hired by Duke Energy. He's set to graduate in May from the Electric Utility Substation and Relay Technology at Richmond Community College. He'll report to Duke Energy in June.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Wesley Norris, 33, of Coats, already has been hired by Duke Energy. He’s set to graduate in May from the Electric Utility Substation and Relay Technology at Richmond Community College. He’ll report to Duke Energy in June.

“I think it’s gonna work out in the long run,” Clark said in a recent interview while preparing for a final exam.

Clark said there might not be a way for an average person to prepare for the workload in the classes.

“It’s a lot more involved than what you might initially think,” Clark said. “It’s not easy, by no means.”

If Clark is successful between now and May 2016, he’ll be pretty much set for life by entering a career field in desperate  need of qualified workers. According to a May 2013 Forbes.com report, the average age of a worker in the electric utility industry is 46.1 years. The number of employees age 53 and older increased 5 percent in a five-year period. And by 2020, more than 60 percent of the industry’s workforce “could retire or leave on other grounds.”

“Utilities hired like crazy in the ’70s and ’80s,” Lampley explained. “We have a tremendous opportunity. It’s not smoke and mirrors. We need more highly qualified, motivated students” to fill the “super-high demand.”

Such a demand, Lampley predicted, will “be here for eight to 10 years. It’s a window of opportunity that’s going to be wide open for that long, and then it may close again. Because the people that get these jobs don’t leave ’em.”

Now in the program’s fourth year, there is a trend — and a difficult obstacle to overcome. Lampley said the dropout rate nears 50 percent. The first class had 12 students; eight graduated. Only 12 of the 25 starters of the second class successfully completed the program. In the third year, 33 students began the program and instructors expected 16 or 17 of them to graduate. Another obstacle: students drop quickly. In this, the fourth year, there were 43 students who started the program. At least 13 won’t move on to the second semester, Lampley said.

“We’re getting quite a few people changing careers,” Lampley said. “A lot of them are in their middle 30s. They’re good. They’re serious.”

Wesley Norris knows what’s at stake. The 33-year-old from Coats expects to graduate in May. He already has a job offer from Duke Energy to work in the Raleigh area. Prior to enrolling at Richmond Community College, Norris worked in a factory — “not the best job in the world,” he said, and one that “wasn’t going anywhere.”

Norris’ brother-in-law was in RCC’s first class of the new program. Norris did the math. At an investment of roughly $1,200 per semester, plus books, he’d have to pay approximately $4,800 before completing the program for a job that will pay between $50,000 to $60,000 right out of the gate — and up to $80,000 with overtime.

“It’s not an easy course,” said Norris, echoing Clark’s sentiments from a separate area on campus. ”

Lampley agreed. Quickly.

“We need the student that’s capable of going to a four-year engineering school and willing to work hard enough for two years to get it,” Lampley said. “That’s what we need. We just want them to know the opportunity exists if they want that.”

Lampley noted that the courses at RCC offer theoretical and hands-on training.

“We would not dumb it down,” he said. “We teach what needs to be taught. We test like it needs to be taught. One of the things we base the program on … from my experience, a lot of (technicians) can do it but they don’t understand the ‘why.’ We’re creating a better generation of technicians.”

No, the bulk of the jobs available won’t be anywhere near Richmond County. But at least once a week, Lampley receives an inquiry from industry officials in Virignia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee or Oklahoma about vacancies — and seeing if he has someone to fill the slot.

Norris is taken. Clark’s hopeful his turn will soon come. Right now, though, there are plenty of other openings in the field.

 

 

 

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