By Jennifer Grove, Workforce Development Coordinator, Gulf Power
When Ruben Powers entered high school in Pensacola, Fla. four years ago, he never dreamed that just a few short months after graduation he’d be deeply entrenched in a Gulf Power Company apprentice program.
But today Ruben, like 40 other men and women who are graduates of the Gulf Power Academy at West Florida High School of Advanced Technology, is sold on a career in the utility industry.
Ruben and his fellow graduates are not the only beneficiaries of this program. Gulf Power Company gets a pool of well educated, well trained job candidates who understand the nature of utility industry work to help meet their critical workforce needs.
The Gulf Power Academy is a partnership between West Florida High School of Advanced Technology (www.wfhs.net) and Gulf Power Company, a subsidiary of Southern Company that serves northwest Florida with roughly 1,400 employees. Created in 2001, the program provides opportunities for students like Ruben to learn first-hand the working conditions, benefits and challenges of utility industry work.
The National Center for Construction and Education Research (NCCER) Electrical Curriculum and the Florida Industrial Electricity curriculum are the basis for the program. Students, who have core academic classes like any other high school, spend their elective class periods in the Gulf Power Academy beginning at the end of the 9th grade. With a strong focus on safety, students learn the basics of industrial electricity and the power generation, transmission and delivery processes. Additionally, students learn about Gulf Power Company programs, processes and values.
“I never dreamed I’d begin such a solid career with such a great company so soon after getting out of high school,” said Ruben, a Class of 2005 graduate of the Gulf Power Academy at WFHS. “It’s hard work, but it feels good to work for a company where you make a difference in people’s lives and have an opportunity to grow and learn.”
In the 10th grade, students begin spending 90 minutes a day in the Gulf Power Academy. Students are introduced to the basic concepts of a vertically integrated electric utility through Gulf Power guest instructors and field trips to Gulf Power facilities. During their junior year, students are matched in a one-on-one mentoring relationship with a Gulf Power employee in a career of interest to them.
Students work toward acceptance their senior year into the ACE (Advanced Career Experience) Program where they report to Gulf Power work locations on alternating days.
Students are immersed in Gulf Power life through group training and individual on-the-job plans. They learn of the many career options within the company and Gulf Power is able to observe and gather data on each student-valuable information that helps the company make hiring decisions later on. Students are tested on the Edison Electric Institute pre-employment tests during their senior year and become eligible for 15 hours of “articulation credit” toward the Engineering Electronics Technology A.A.S. degree at nearby Pensacola Junior College.
Recently evaluated and recognized by the Association for Career and Technical Education as the premier small learning community in the U.S. to receive a “distinguished” rating, the Gulf Power Academy provides opportunities for all students to engage in relevant education that will prepare them for employment in the energy industry – whether that employment occurs immediately following graduation or after further education.
Mirroring Gulf Power’s workforce, some students want to enter the workforce in technical entry-level positions immediately following high school graduation, while other students will go on to receive their ME or EE degrees. This program has even become a home for students who are interested in the support organizations of customer service or marketing. Because they are still required to go through the industrial electricity curriculum and all Gulf Power experiences – including everything from assisting on the coal docks at a local power plant to working on engineering projects in a local neighborhood – these students have a foundation in the core business unique for non-technical utility jobs.
Even though there is no commitment on Gulf Power’s part to hire graduates, students and parents still line up to get in the Gulf Power Academy. Parents are interested because their students are not forced to make a decision about education following high school until they near graduation, even as they keep their employment options open. Parents and students also see the direct involvement of Gulf Power employees in the program and can sense the company’s “family” atmosphere.
A High Rate of Success
Gulf Power Academy students have an 88 percent success rate on the company’s pre-employment tests – higher than other applicants. That’s proof the program is a win-win for the company and the student.
The Academy helps Gulf Power raise awareness about utility careers and provides a direct pathway to a future workforce. So far, two classes have graduated and 14 graduates have been hired into entry-level positions in power generation, power delivery and customer service at Gulf Power Company. About half of the students have gone on to further their education and the remainder have entered the military or gained employment elsewhere.
Gulf Power is not stopping with just one successful program. The Gulf Power Academy model has been replicated in Laurel Hill, Fla., with both an electrical and a welding-based high school program. The company is also looking at a third opportunity in the Panama City, Fla., area. Sister companies within Southern Company will also replicate this program throughout the southeast.
On a national scale, through the Center for Energy Workforce Development (www.cewd.org), the energy industry is working together to identify model programs such as the Gulf Power Academy and replicate them throughout the country. No longer can utilities simply put a “We’re hiring” sign out and get qualified diverse applicants.
The industry must work together to tell the story of the growth of our industry and career opportunities and must actively pursue the younger generation to engage, educate and excite them about a career in the electric utility industry.