Archived Story

Dr. Robert Harrison: Preparing for jobs of the future

Published 10:17am Tuesday, September 1, 2009

This is the second in a series of articles on the value, opportunity and impact of community colleges

Living in southwestern Michigan gives us the privilege to experience the beauty of Lake Michigan and its lakefront breezes. Our state’s economic turnaround and its future could rest in part in harnessing the power of that breeze.

Wind energy has been cited as one of the key components in the nation’s solution for energy independence. Along with other alternative fuel sources such as nuclear power, this area is at the forefront of developing diverse energies that will power our region in the future.

In a recent visit to the Lake Michigan College campus to announce a $150,000 federal grant for alternative energy career training, U.S. Congressman Fred Upton highlighted our country’s increased need for energy, and with that growth, the rise in demand for highly-skilled workers to operate and maintain power plants, energy delivery systems and advanced equipment.

Supplying a trained workforce that supports the production of wind energy will be vital to attracting the technology to our area. Thanks in part to the federal funding, LMC will expand its Energy Production Technology program beginning this winter to include programs in wind energy and utility line mechanics.

The Bertrand Crossing Campus in Niles will house the new wind energy program, including two wind turbines for use by students and instructors. One turbine will be a working unit positioned on the campus property while the second will be available in the manufacturing laboratory to teach students how to repair turbines.

Wind energy is recognized as one of the fastest growing sources of renewable energy, and our state is ranked among the top five places in the country to meet this need.

In a recent report, the American Wind Energy Association listed Michigan second nationally in new wind capacity, while the U.S. Department of Energy rated the state as the fourth-best place in America for the production of wind energy and the manufacture of wind turbines.

With new advances in energy comes the need for utility line workers to build and maintain power delivery systems. Recent data shows that within the next few years, half of the nation’s 400,000 line workers will be eligible for retirement. The new LMC utility line mechanics non-degree training program has been established through a partnership with American Electric Power and Consumers Energy to address this concern. It will also be located at the Bertrand Crossing Campus in Niles.

Community colleges are at the frontline of training workers for new jobs in alternative energy and advancing the skills of existing industry employees. Working in partnership with business, industry, other academic institutions and government leaders, community colleges are poised to meet the training needs in these advanced technologies.

In January 2008, Lake Michigan College was approached by executives at the Palisades Power Plant in Covert to help with a growing concern – the anticipated shortage of nuclear energy industry employees within five years. After studies by the Nuclear Energy Institute, it became clear there were signs of decline in the key nuclear craft and operations positions.
From those conversations, grew a partnership with Palisades, LMC and the D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman to train workers for careers in nuclear energy production.

Today, the Energy Production Technology program at LMC is the fastest-growing degree offering on campus. More than 190 students are enrolled with their sights set on helping our area to become a national leader in renewable, clean, alternative energy.

At LMC, we are also collaborating with other community colleges and four-year institutions throughout west Michigan to develop curriculum and training facilities to advance new energy technologies.

As we learn more about the fundamental and environmental benefits of new energy sources, we see that therein lies an opportunity for our state, our region and our local workforce to be a leader in the future of the power industry.

Dr. Robert Harrison is president of Lake Michigan College.

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