By LANE BLACKMER
Capital News Service
LANSING—With unfilled jobs on the line at nuclear power plants in Southwest Michigan, a bachelor’s degree program at Lake Michigan College (LMC)—a community college—might provide a solution.
Legislation is being considered to allow community colleges across the state to offer some bachelor’s degree programs, one of them in nuclear technology.
It’s not an unheard-of practice in other parts of the U.S. Seventeen states have similar policies, said Luke Pickelman, legislative director of the Michigan Community College Association.
A House-passed bill would authorize such degrees in nursing, culinary arts, cement technology and manufacturing technologies. Sens. Michael Switalski, D-Roseville, and Jud Gilbert, R-Algonac, have proposed a similar bill in the Senate that included nuclear technology. Switalski
said he is interested in adding nuclear technology to the House bill when the Senate considers it.
All the programs are relevant to the community colleges, but the nuclear technology program has specific significance to Southwest Michigan because of two nuclear power plants in the area, Cook in Bridgman and Palisades in Covert.
In 2008, LMC teamed up with the two plants to offer an associate’s program in nuclear technology and to save time in training new employees.
The first batch of 52 associate’s degree graduates in nuclear technology finished in April 2010, Palisades Nuclear Energy communications manager Mark Savage said.
“What we’re about is training a workforce that makes our communities as attractive as possible to business and industry,” said Dean Souden, executive dean for career education at LMC.
Souden said the plants are finding that they can keep employees in the area if they train people who already reside there.
Matt Pries is enrolled in the nuclear technology associate’s program at LMC.
“A year ago, I got laid off from my job,” he said. “Instead of looking for other jobs and doing that again, I decided it was time to, instead of being a jack of all trades, be a master of one.”
Pries said if a bachelor’s program in nuclear technology is implemented at the community college level, he plans to get it at LMC.
“One of the concentrations that I’m interested in is the chemistry aspect. Nuclear plants are looking for bachelor graduates to hire into those positions,” he said. “If this goes through, my training would be up to a level to what they’re interested in.”
Cost and proximity to where he lives is why Pries says he won’t attend a bachelor’s-granting institution like Western Michigan University, which is an hour away.
But there’s considerable opposition to the legislation; the House bill passed by only a 55-49 vote.
“The bottom line: it duplicates existing programs and it’s costly. We should be doing more collaboration, not duplication,” said Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan. “There are no unmet needs.”
But Cook’s communications manager, Bill Schalk, sees the proposed four-year program at LMC as a way of creating a more specialized workforce.
“We hire Western Michigan University people – it’s just another opportunity,” said Schalk. “To create more educational options is a good thing, not just for Cook, but that’s a good thing for everybody.”
The proposed bachelor’s program, he said, would be designed to complement the college’s current associate’s program, which allows students to not only be taught by employees of Cook and Palisades, but to take field trips to the power plants.
Schalk said another benefit would be that individuals trained in the nuclear technology program have a clearer career pathway. He says there are obvious dangers in working at a power plant, and workers should be trained to understand that danger for the safety of themselves, other workers and the surrounding community.
Engineering director and LMC nuclear technology instructor Randy Ebright said another issue the power plants face is that supervisory positions that require a bachelor’s degree might open. Around 15 percent of their workers will reach retirement age within the next 10 to15 years, he estimated.
“If we were to go hire a mechanic, we would still have to train them on our culture,” he said. “If we trained somebody in our program, they would easily be successful. “We train and prepare people on a higher standard than they would get at a traditional academic experience.”
By LANE BLACKMER