Linn State Technical College iOptimas Award-I Winner for Vision

By Patrick Kiger

Oct. 24, 2008

A s the U.S. tries to reduce its dependence on carbon-based fuels to combat global warming, the 20 percent of the nation’s electricity that is provided by nuclear power plants has become all the more important. There’s even serious talk, for the first time in decades, of building a new generation of nuclear plants.

But that nuclear renaissance is imperiled by an impending shortage of talent with the technical skills and training to operate plants safely and effectively. A recent study by the Nuclear Energy Institute found that more than half of the industry’s workers are older than 47, and that as many as 27 percent will be eligible for retirement over the next five years.

In the face of that potential crisis, Linn State Technical College in Linn, Missouri, has seized the initiative. With the assistance of federal grants and donations of equipment and expertise from the nuclear industry, the two-year school has developed a nuclear technology program that trains students in specialties such as radiation protection, instrumentation and control, reactor operations and quality control. Since Linn State began the program in 2004 with 10 students, enrollment has grown steadily, and this year 71 students are enrolled.

Department chairman Bruce Meffert is quick to share the credit with outside players who played important roles in the growth of Linn State’s program. It was Chris Graham, a consulting health physicist at AmerenUE’s Callaway Nuclear Plant near Columbia, Missouri, who actually conceived the idea of a two-year program for nuclear technicians when he became concerned about the potential talent shortfall.

William H. Miller, a professor at the Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia, helped provide funding for Linn State from a $4.8 million Department of Energy grant that the university had obtained to improve nuclear infrastructure and education. Additionally, companies in the nuclear industry contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and technical expertise.

“The support from the industry has been particularly important,” Meffert says. “Whether it’s donations or academic help, the industry usually makes sure that I get what I need.”

But Meffert’s and Linn State’s genius has been leveraging that help to achieve ever more ambitious goals. Originally, the program only offered a certification in radiation protection, but this year Meffert added three specialties to the program. Industry demand—and the allure of $50,000-a-year starting salaries for graduates—is so great that by next year, Meffert envisions scaling up the program to accommodate as many as 350 students.

“We had to think hard about the expansion—do we really want to do this?” Meffert says. “But the industry needs this, and the jobs are out there for the students when they graduate.” As Meffert explains, the expanded program provides students with the chance to have the sort of lifetime job security that is increasingly vanishing from the U.S. economy.

“These utility company jobs can’t be shipped overseas,” he says. “They have to generate the power here. And you can stay in the same job for 30 years if you want. There’s really no opportunity like it.”

In recognition of Linn State’s prescience in meeting a critical industry need and creating lucrative opportunities for its students, the school wins the 2008Optimas Award for Vision.

The nuclear technology program began in 2004 with just 10 students. but enrollment is now up to 71, with further expansion planned. It has two full-time instructors and an annual budget of $180,000 that has been augmented by hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment and technical expertise contributed by nuclear utilities.

Linn State Technical College offers training in civil, computer, industrial and transportation technology and is one of the only a handful of U.S. educational institutions that train students to work in nuclear power plants. The nuclear program offers specialization in radiation protection, instrumentation, reactor operations and quality control.

Workforce Management
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