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Energy experts warn of worker shortfall

The industry needs to keep up with coming growth, especially in the Southeast.

By Asjylyn Loder, Times Staff Writer
Published November 18, 2007


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While state politicians worry about what fuel will help power Florida's energy future, they have overlooked another increasingly scarce resource: the people qualified to produce the power.

Energy executives nationwide worry about the coming shortfall of workers. In the Southeast, industry leaders are doubly concerned, as the pace of growth in states like Florida drives billions into new energy projects throughout the region.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate this month, Andra Cornelius, a vice president with Workforce Florida, warned, "Unless we undertake long-term solutions to expand our energy sector work force, we'll face exceptional challenges to keep the lights on."

Experts predict "severe" shortages and call staffing the "Achilles' heel" of the industry. The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington, D.C., trade group, estimatesthe Southeast needs 40,000 workers in Texas and along the Gulf Coast in 2008, 19,600 workers will reach retirement age in the next five years just in the nuclear industry, and 104 power plants will be built in the region over the next decade. Cornelius counted 20 generating units planned for Florida.

Retiree power

After a lull of nearly three decades, the U.S. nuclear industry appears poised to build the first of a fleet of 31 power plants - 27 of them in the Southeast.

"We've seen this coming," said Loren Plisco, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's deputy head of construction for the Southeast.

To help offset the shortage of trained local workers, Progress Energy Florida draws on its pool of retirees.

Earnie Gallion, 58, helped build the Crystal River power plant and worked there for nearly three decades. It's where he met his wife, Joy Gallion. When he retired in 2005, he knew he would come back. He promised his wife he would take at least a year off, and he did. He returned early this year for the plant's "outage," a refueling and maintenance shutdown that happens ever two years.

Carla Groleau, a utility spokeswoman, said 35 retirees came back for the outage.

The 15-month job will help Gallion and his wife pay for an addition to their Crystal River home without going into debt. It also gives the nuclear veteran a chance to pass on his experience to a new generation.

"I see a lot of former retirees back," Gallion said. "You get experienced personnel with plant knowledge. They cannot only help out and provide that level experience, but also kind of show the new people the way."

Recruiting in schools

Schools throughout the state have worked with the utilities to recruit new energy workers.

The University of Florida's nuclear program provides summer interns to power plants. Gulf Power created high school recruitment programs in the Panhandle. Progress Energy set up a high school program in Levy County, where it hopes to build a nuclear power plant.

"A lot of this labor pool are ninth- and 10th-graders right now," said Danny Roderick, Progress Energy vice president of nuclear projects and construction. "When we get into 2013, 2014 time frame, they'll be ready and qualified or what we need them to do."

The industry needs everything: plumbers, welders, electricians, chemists and engineers.

Cornelius testified that energy jobs can pay well above state and national averages for industrial work. For example, power line installers earned an average of nearly $53,000, while power plant workers averaged nearly $60,000.

It's a challenge, Cornelius said. But for many in Florida, "this provides a wonderful opportunity."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at 813 225-3117 or asjylyn@hotmail.com.

By the numbers

40,000

Workers the energy industry will need in Texas and along the Gulf coast in 2008.

19,600

Nuclear energy workers eligible for retirement in the next five years.

$400-billion

Amount the energy sector plans to invest throughout the Southeast.

27

Number of the 31 new nuclear plants planned in the U.S. slated for the Southeast.

77

Number of non-nuclear power plants planned in the Southeast through 2013.

3,500

Miles of transmission lines planned in the Southeast through 2013.

Source: Nuclear Energy Institute, Workforce Florida

Major projects in the bay area

- Progress Energy is installing scrubbers and pollution reduction controls on two coal-fired units at its Crystal River plant.

Cost: $1-billion

Workers: about 1,000

Completion: 2009-2010

 

- The utility is switching Weedon Island power plant from oil to natural gas, and upgrading transmission.

Cost: $750-million

Workers: 620

Completion: 2009-2010

[Last modified November 16, 2007, 22:18:33]


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