Another Benefit of Hydro

The “silver tsunami” of retirements in the hydropower industry is upon us. “Nationally, one-third of utility employees will retire in the next 10 years,” says Debbie Gallaher, supervisor of the visitor center at the 1,300-MW Rocky Reach project. The competition with other industries needing employees with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills is fierce. Rural hydro facilities are particularly hard hit.

The missing piece is effectively communicating with high school students that STEM careers in hydropower exist. Counselors and teachers focus on helping students complete requirements to apply to college, not consider career opportunities. In addition, several studies have shown that if you can recruit students to jobs in the area where they grew up, retention increases significantly.

The Foundation for Water and Energy Education (FWEE) identified a win-win: Work with high school students to build bridges to STEM hydropower career opportunities, and know that those who pursue those careers are significantly reducing recruitment and training costs for utilities.

Thus, FWEE and the Chelan County Public Utility District, which owns Rocky Reach, launched the FWEE Hydropower and STEM Career Academy in 2016.

The details

Students from Ione, Wash., near the Canadian border, to Beaverton, Ore. (outside of Portland), participated. Students were entering grades 9 through 12 or had graduated from high school and were enrolled to start their freshman year of college.

The academy took place at the Rocky Reach Visitor Center, on the Columbia River about 8 miles north of Wenatchee, Wash.

Day 1 included two STEM challenges on energy transfer and group tours of a dismantled generation unit and fish surface collector and bypass system. Day 2 included modules with a mechanical/project engineer, electrical engineer/wiremen, plant mechanic, plant operator and divers/lineman. Day 3 included courses on making the STEM connection in school, getting resources, educational diversity and career opportunities. Day 4 offered a visit to the fish sampling center, along with information on apprenticeships and a demonstration of incremental systems. Day 5 found students building their own hydropower projects and mapping their education/career pathway.

Students received instruction and advice on how to prepare for a career in the exciting field of power generation and delivery. High school counselors, college advisors and mentors were on hand to identify the prerequisites and academic achievement needed to pursue these and related careers.

Students learn about hydropower careers.
Students learn about hydropower careers.

“We’d like to show local students the high quality, good paying jobs that could be part of their future,” Gallaher says.

Applicants needed a GPA of 2.5 or above for the most recent academic year and submitted an essay of 100 to 250 words describing why they were interested in attending the academy. Registration was $175 per student, with some scholarships available. For those traveling more than one hour, a host family option was made available.

Sixteen students participated in 2016. The combination of hands-on STEM activities, tours and meeting with employees who could directly explain what they do and career opportunities is innovative and well-received. Student evaluations were positive and confirmed three important points:

  • The students had little to no idea of STEM career opportunities behind the “concrete curtain;”
  • They are interested in these options; and
  • They need bridges and programs like the academy to learn about and pursue them.

Into the future

FWEE and Chelan County PUD will repeat their partnership in 2017 and will add more hands-on activities, increase direct recruitment with schools through classroom presentations and after-school activities, and continue to reach out to female and Hispanic populations that are difficult to recruit.

FWEE also is actively working on bringing the program to Seattle, Portland and other areas. One new partner is Washington STEM, an organization that advances excellence, equity and innovation in STEM education for students in Washington State. The local affiliate, Wenatchee Learns, is assisting with marketing, recruitment, development of materials and expansion state-wide.

– By Randall Stearnes, president, Foundation for Water and Energy Education and community relations officer, Tacoma Power; and Debbie Gallaher, visitor services manager, Chelan County Public Utility District

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