Power Up: Luminant invests in its workforce of tomorrow

Dec 14, 2012 by

Look past the advanced degrees and Dr. Dirk Hughes could be the shop foreman for any industrial business in the country.

His gruff demeanor and commanding height appear more physical than intellectual; but inside is a man who knows how important education is to the future of his employer as well as his students.

As a 20-year veteran of Luminant – a coal power plant company with operations throughout Texas – Hughes went to his company’s board with an idea for training its future workforce.

“By the year 2015, 52 percent of our craft employees will be age 55 or older,” Hughes said, “so we have a whole lot of employees who could be leaving for retirement.”

Hughes proposed his company create a scholarship-based Power Track program to attract a young workforce and inject talent into Luminant in order to fill positions as its current workforce retires.

“I spent one minute talking about the program and 29 minutes listening to them tell me how stupid the program was going to be,” he said.

And that was that.

A year and a half later, a new chief operating officer asked Hughes to re-propose the initial program.

“My first thought was ‘great, the scars have just healed,’” Hughes said; and he proceeded to give the same proposal he had presented the year before, thinking it would fail again.

“But he took off on it and gave us approval to come up with a scholarship program and a degree plan – and have everything up and running within a year. That was our challenge and we were able to meet that challenge.”

The premise was simple: partner with a two-year college to offer several dozen $10,000 scholarships to train students how to operate a power plant, in the hope they’ll want to work for Luminant when they graduate. The students will earn a degree in power plant technology but will not be obligated to work for Luminant.

Between semesters, Luminant will provide a paid summer internship where the student will work on-site.

Dirk

Dr. Dirk Hughes.

The hope is that the relationships Luminant employees develop with the students – as well as the $10,000 scholarship – will instill loyalty in the company.

“Our mission is to relieve the burden of the students and the parents of the cost of education,” Hughes said. “There’s more to college than tuition and books, but still, $10,000 is a pretty good chunk of money.”

Luminant Academy had already been at the TJC West Campus for the past five years, providing technical, leadership and management training to Luminant employees; so creating the full program at TJC was a no-brainer.

“Most colleges that we’ve talked to do not have the type of equipment we have here at TJC,” he said, “and when we decided to come up with a degree program, we came to Tyler Junior College. We did not go to any other colleges; TJC was the obvious choice.”

In a job market that’s rough for new graduates, Luminant is extending a gold-plated olive branch. Unemployment nationwide has languished around 8 percent, and the statistics are even worse among recent grads. Luminant is almost begging grads to come work for them – and not for pennies.

New employees working at Luminant make upwards of $50,000 annually, higher than the national average by a significant margin.

Luminant’s management has realized the cost of hiring a highly skilled workforce at a premium is still less expensive than putting a billion-dollar coal power plant in the hands of unskilled employees.

Improper control of a boiler at a plant could cost millions of dollars in damage and lost revenue – which is exactly what happened at the Sandy Creek power plant in fall of 2011.

Handing the controls of these power plants over to a young and highly trained workforce is priority one for Luminant Academy, and they believe they’ve found the formula for keeping qualified workers within the company.

By recruiting students from high schools around the power plants themselves, Luminant can maintain worker retention and prevent having to train new employees as frequently.

“As we began to look around, we realized we needed to get people who lived close to the power plants and who want to stay there and really want a career,” Roger Pruitt, Power Track coordinator, said.

“We looked at high school students who might be interested in working near their home and want a career at a power plant.”

Pruitt considers himself a kind-of “dorm daddy,” helping guide the Power Track students through their degrees and helping to deal with issues that come up in the students’ personal lives. Many of the Power Track students have families of their own; and balancing work, family and college can be difficult.

“The Power Track program fills a great need in our society,” Pruitt said. “A lot of people really don’t know what they want to do, and they’re maybe not the type of person who wants to go get a four-year degree.”

Power Track sophomore Cody Bodiford grew up near the Oak Grove power plant in Mount Pleasant. His dad owns a construction business that deals regularly with the power plant, and Cody had firsthand knowledge of the power plant business growing up.

“I love working with my hands,” Bodiford said. “My favorite class is going to be the mechanicals. We’re out in the lab most of the time. It’s a lot of hands-on experience that you’re going to use in the power plant. It’s stuff I’ve done my whole life.”

Luminant Academy classroom at the TJC West Campus.

Luminant Academy classroom at the TJC West Campus.

Robert Gentry, a Luminant veteran and curriculum coordinator for the Power Track program, says they attract a different kind of student than a traditional four-year college.

“These guys like to work with their hands, and they want to be outside,” Gentry said, “Now they have an opportunity for a career.”

With as many non-traditional students as junior colleges attract, vocational programs and alternative career paths have found a home in recent years in the nation’s two-year schools.

As the Baby Boomers retire and the workforce changes, two-year colleges are in a unique position to adapt to the needs of the community. Traditional pathways of either a high school diploma or a four-year degree seem antiquated. Students from rural areas, those who like to work with their hands, don’t feel like they need to forfeit their lifestyles to have a successful career. Education can change their future without changing who they are.

These kinds of programs for high-tech jobs are popping up around the country. In New York State, lawmakers are pushing for a specialized track in the high-tech sector – starting in high school. These science-specific diplomas will encourage students to graduate and give them the tools to start a high-paying career quickly.

Major companies – Luminant included – are pushing this aggressively. Training a workforce before they’re employed is much less expensive than on-the-job training, and employers are willing to pay a premium for highly skilled labor.

Luminant’s program also received national attention. In October, the Aspen Institute of Washington, D.C., named Luminant Power Track as a Model for Success in the Skills for America’s Future program.

“We’re saving money hand over fist [with the Luminant Academy],” Hughes said.

Before the Power Track program started, Luminant was training employees for two years on full salary, and then potentially losing some trainees in the first several months due to changes in their career path.

“We consider the Power Track program a two-year interview process,” Pruitt said. “On the other hand the student looks at us and says ‘this is the kind of team I really want to work with, we’re like a family’.

“They get to look at us for two years, we get to look at them for two years and in the end we get to say ‘let’s do this, let’s make this happen.’”

The Power Track program just completed its first year, and the first class of students will graduate in May 2013. At that point, Luminant will consider making Power Track a permanent fixture at TJC.

In the freshman class, Hughes said there are 29 students on scholarship, but another 18 are taking classes without scholarships – a fact that surprised Luminant.

“That shows us there is value for this type of degree in the community,” he said, “and TJC bent over backward to make this happen.”


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Fall 2010, Fall 2012, Features

About the author

Allen Arrick is Tyler Junior College's Online Multimedia Content Producer. He can be reached at 903-510-2526 or at aarr@tjc.edu