SAVANNAH, Ga. – What does it take to operate and maintain a dam? Technical aptitude, well-honed skills, teamwork—and a lot of dam training.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District provides a rigorous, four-year apprenticeship program that trains college students to work high-demand jobs at hydroelectric dams in the region.
"The Hydropower Training Program is how we get new craft workers into our dams and power plants," said William Palmer, chief of the Hydropower Technical Center. "It helps us attract qualified people and train them in the specialized skills needed to operate our hydroelectric dams."
The Corps employs mechanics, electricians, shift operators and other technical experts at its three dams on the Savannah River—Hartwell, Richard B. Russell and J. Strom Thurmond. Many of them are graduates of the Hydropower Training Program.
Trainees are funded by the Federal Student Pathways program, a national effort that offers students and recent graduates internships and other career paths to federal employment.
The Hydropower Training Program includes a combination of academic coursework, plant equipment operations and maintenance procedures, and on-the-job training. To qualify, applicants must be enrolled in a technical program of study to earn an associate's degree. They work up to 40 hours a week at their assigned dam and must pass a laborious oral evaluation every six months.
To progress through the program, trainees must successfully complete annual phases that build on material already learned. Phases increase in complexity until trainees progress from a Level 1 trainee to journeyman status. If they are successful, trainees will achieve permanent jobs at Corps dams in the region.
Palmer said the program fills a void in industry to meet the Corps' hydropower needs.
"Hydropower is a small part of the power industry, and there are not enough personnel with hydropower experience in the power industry to meet the Corps' regional hydropower challenges," Palmer said.
"The equipment we maintain is very specific; so there's an even greater demand for us to have technical experts who understand the equipment inside a dam and how to operate it, maintain it and troubleshoot it," Palmer said.
Palmer and his team routinely assess staffing levels to ensure new trainees can be hired in time to fill projected vacancies. Typically, the District hires new trainees every one or two years.
"It's been a great learning experience so far," said Josh Brown, an electrical trainee in his third year of the program at the Russell Dam. A native of Elberton, Ga., Brown spent most of last year going to school and working full time under the program.
"I found out about it from a neighbor of mine who works with the Corps," Brown said. "I talked to my teacher at Athens Technical College and he got me started with putting in my application."
Brown graduated with an associate's degree in applied science in August 2013.
Charles Willis, from Lowndensville, S.C. is a third-year mechanical trainee at the Hartwell Dam. He said an instructor at Piedmont Technical College told him about the program.
"I already had an associate's degree in mechatronics (a multidisciplinary field that combines electrical, mechanical, telecommunications, control and computer engineering), but I went back for another degree so that I could pursue the Corps' trainee program," Willis said. He recently earned a second degree in industrial electronics while working for the Corps.
Palmer said the Corps recruits candidates who live near the dams and have a desire to work there long term.
"We have partnerships with technical schools throughout the Savannah River Basin to help us find candidates for this program," Palmer said. "We seek people who want to stay in the local region. We invest a lot of time and money into them, so it's in our best interests to keep them on our river."
While time management is certainly a challenge for trainees, the oral examinations are typically considered the toughest part of the program.
"The hardest part is the test," Brown said. "When you have to sit down in front of your higher-ups and do a four-hour board examination, it can be stressful. They tell us what topics to study and we get as deep as we can get. They want to make sure we understand how the equipment works and that we know what to do to troubleshoot."
"The test is very stressful," Willis said. "It takes a lot of preparation, gathering information, and studying. It's four hours long, and you have to be able to answer any questions they ask."
Both trainees said the benefits to the program make the effort well worth it.
"The biggest appeal to me is the benefits for federal employment," Brown said. "I worked for 15 years in the granite industry, and I liked it, but the benefits just did not compare to the Corps. I was planning to go back to school anyway and get a degree, so this trainee program just came at the perfect time for me. Plus it's a great group to work with here at Russell. Everyone has a strong work ethic."
"Though I have many years of experience as a machinist, that is just one of the duties I will have as a power plant mechanic," Willis said. "The training program gives me an opportunity to learn the other duties I will be required to do as a mechanic from experienced people."
"I gained a lot of valuable experience, and I get to travel and work with people from other plants," Willis added. "I've never worked with a more qualified group of people than I have with the Corps."
In addition to Brown and Willis, five other trainees are currently enrolled. In total, 31 current Savannah District employees have completed the program and work permanent jobs at the dams.