The dean of engineering has visited more than 160 local companies.
By JoANNE VIVIANO
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Eric Brown of Columbiana spent two years in the traditional engineering program at Youngstown State University, but he struggled to find his niche.
"I never found anything I could see myself doing for the rest of my life," he said.
But when Brown, 22, switched to YSU's new power plant technology program, his perspective changed.
"This just really seems like something I could definitely do," he said, during a recent class. "I love it. I'm really putting passion into it because I know it's the rest of my life."
Students in the two-year associate degree program, which began last fall, have just wrapped up their first year. They are being trained to monitor and operate boilers, turbines, generators and auxiliary equipment on today's high-tech computerized equipment. They also earn skills needed to test for a third-class stationary engineer's license, required to work as a power plant operator.
"It's gone very well. These are very serious students," said Ted Bosela, associate dean of the Rayen College of Engineering and Technology. "This is a very specialized program, and they're very interested in doing this kind of work."
The impetus for the program came from FirstEnergy Corp. officials, who told officials at the engineering college that the number of trained electrical workers was waning as the work force aged and retired. Akron-based FirstEnergy is the parent company of Ohio Edison.
In response, officials established its Electric Utility Technology program that trains electrical line workers. The power plant technology option is an outgrowth of that program.
Bosela said an associate degree program is a new approach to preparing people for this kind of work. In the past, most training was done on the job site.
"We believe in this college that the future of work force development is going to be the associate degree," he said. "Companies are requiring it as an entry credential."
Dr. Cynthia Hirtzel, dean of the Rayen College, said public institutions such YSU have a commitment to work with corporations in the area to meet economic development needs. She has visited more than 160 local companies, and partnerships exist with not only FirstEnergy, but also with Parker Hannifin Corp., Fireline, Delphi Packard Electric Systems and others. She also has been working with local union chapters to determine if apprenticeship programs can earn students credit toward an associate degree.
Through such partnerships, students are able to stay in Youngstown and local companies are able to hire directly from YSU, she said.
"They're very eager to collaborate with the College of Engineering and Technology because they can take advantage of the facilities we have that they don't have, and we can place student interns there," she said. "It's a service to the community and it's also a great networking service.
"University and corporate partnerships clearly are essential in economic development in general, but particularly here in the Mahoning Valley region."
In the power plant technology program, students work in class and in hands-on labs at YSU and also visit the FirstEnergy plant.
While students aren't guaranteed a job upon graduation, Bosela said utilities all across the country are facing the same issue as FirstEnergy and losing operators to retirement. Besides utility plants, he said, graduates will hold the skills needed to work at any plant that uses steam, such as a steel mill or brewery.
Aside from maritime academies and one college in North Dakota, YSU is the only school with such a program, Bosela said.
"This is kind of a new approach and I think we're out on the front edge of it," he said.
The college also is working to create separate options in electrical systems technology, mechanical systems technology and instrumentation and control systems technology.
Course instructor Rick Testa, a facilities engineer, said 11 of 13 students have passed an entry-level employment test, compared with a pass rate of about 25 percent in the industry. He said all of the program's 13 students are interning at FirstEnergy this spring and summer, earning $14.75 per hour. Entry-level jobs generally pay $17 to $19 per hour.
An information session on the program will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. June 22 in Schwebel Auditorium at Moser Hall on the YSU campus.
Eric Akenhead, 30, of East Palestine said he enrolled in the power plant technology program because he needed a job and has been trying to get work with FirstEnergy for two years. He now works at a convenience store but wanted to a start a new career to help support himself, his wife and his stepson.
"We're not just going to school for a degree and have no idea where we're going to work," he said. "We actually go down there and get hands-on experience."
Matt Wymer, 23, of Youngstown works as a bricklayer and said this is the first time in his life that he likes coming to school.
"We learn better being in the field than being in a classroom talking about it," Wymer said. "We have a good opportunity, I'll tell you that."
Roger Humberson, 27, of Austintown, had been driving a truck and also wanted a change.
"With a two-year degree you walk into something, a great job, great security," he said. "It's a golden opportunity."