Powering up students' job prospects

Linemen work to fix an electrical post.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Funky, funky... The economic climate has been more than a little funky. This week, we learned the unemployment rate has reached a four-year high of 5.7 percent.

But even in places where local governments are declaring bankruptcy, public utilities are supplying more than water and power. They're also providing jobs.

Amanda Becker has that story.


Teacher: OK, so there's a little place on number two for you to answer "Does it light up?" What do you say?

Class: No.

Teacher: There's a little blank there for you, no.

Amanda Becker: The school day's ended, but students in this classroom are still hard at work. They're learning how to generate electricity from potatoes. Zinc and copper electrodes are stuck into the spuds, wires are clipped on and -- presto! -- the needle on a voltage meter jumps.

This is the first graduating class at the Los Angeles Infrastructure Academy, a voluntary, after-school program where students learn about public utilities. They take science courses, go on field trips to power plants and meet with industry mentors.

It's the brainchild of CEO Marcus Castain.

Marcus Castain: If you look at a young person who is graduating from high school, particularly a poor kid coming out of one of our urban schools in Los Angeles, what are their options? The realistic option is that they go into fast food, they go into retail, they become a parking valet or they join the military.

About a year ago, Castain was developing education programs for the City of Los Angeles, trying to figure out how to keep teenagers in school. Then he met Pamela Porter at the Department of Water and Power and she gave him some enlightening statistics.

Pamela Porter: Depending on how you count it, it can be anywhere from 35 percent to over 50 percent of our employees are eligible for retirement in the next five to seven years.

Castain: Pamela was concerned about how does she address her workforce challenge with all of these retiring baby boomers. So one of us was bringing a supply of all these kids and the other was bringing a demand.

So the L.A. Department of Water and Power decided to fund Castain's academy.

Porter: We decided that we had a very strong combined package of interests.

And they're not alone. Utility companies from New Jersey to Georgia are developing similar programs that recruit and train skilled workers.

Mary Miller at Edison Electric Institute says these partnerships fill the gap left when many school districts stopped offering vocational classes.

Mary Miller: We have seen a real devaluing of skilled trades professions in our society. If you talk to educators, you talk to parents, you talk to guidance counselors, there is an intense focus on traditional four-year college degrees.

But Miller says only about a quarter of students who begin kindergarten end up graduating from college, so utility companies hope to turn high schoolers on to skilled crafts jobs in their industry.

Patrick Gillett is a student at the Infrastructure Academy.

Patrick Gillett: It's one of those jobs that you don't even think that somebody really does the job, like the person who gets a dead person dressed before the funeral. It's just like nobody even knows about that job. How do you even get that job?

Once students discover the public utilities, Mary Miller says they'll find lucrative careers.

Miller: A journeyman lineworker: Typically 5+ years of experience before you get to be a journeyman lineworker. We're seeing average wages of $70,000 a year and that is without overtime.

If they decide to go to college, that paycheck won't go to tuition bills. Pamela Porter says most utilities will reimburse workers for their education expenses. That's good news for student Alex Bodden.

Alex Bodden: My new plan is to work for the utilities and do night courses 2-3 times a week and gradually get my degrees until I get to a Ph.D.

And those degrees could lead students like Alex to high-powered careers as they rise through the ranks of the utility industry.

In Los Angeles, I'm Amanda Becker for Marketplace Money.

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