By Abra Bennett
It may seem like a long leap from solar panels and wind turbines to potato products and aluminum boats, but it’s all within the scope of the Energy Systems Technology program at Walla Walla Community College.
Adding new programs and improving existing ones will make the pathway to degree completion simpler for the students preparing to work to support tomorrow’s industrial energy solutions. This is what WWCC’s newly reorganized EST program is all about.
To meet a national demand the college is adding a new concentration in renewable energy, including solar, wind and bioproducts.
According to a recent International Renewable Energy Agency report, solar employment expanded 17 times faster than the total U.S. economy in 2016.
Overall, more than 260,000 people work in the solar industry, which is up by 24 percent from 2015.
And on the bioproducts side, a new mill converting Columbia County’s 4 million annual tons of unused wheat straw into usable pulp is slated to open in late 2018, see ubne.ws/2x0ni23.
Industrial maintenance and welding programs are making their debut in Clarkston, and in Walla Walla a cellar-maintenance concentration has been added to meet the needs of the wine and beverage industry.
Tim Donahue, WWCC’s director of winemaking, says “A big piece of winemaking is the chemistry and microbiology, but a bigger piece is managing the presses, pumps and forklifts. Our local industry has been asking us to train students to fill this need.”
Under the guidance of Faculty Lead Jason Selwitz and Workforce Dean Jerry Anhorn, previously separate disciplines leading to work in the various fields related to energy production and maintenance have been combined into a single degree program.
The new associate in applied arts and sciences degree allows all students to receive the same grounding in electrical basics. Students will also choose one or more streams of specialization that suit their individual needs.
The new degree program will offer concentrations in mechanical electrical technology, plant operations, center pivot irrigation, cellar maintenance, precision agriculture, renewable energy technology and, in Clarkston only, industrial maintenance.
Selwitz is enthusiastic about these changes.
“We are excited about these updates. In addition to offering new concentrations in cellar maintenance and renewable energy technology, this structure better defines clear employment pathways and provides more flexibility for our students.
“Now all of our students will have a common first-year core of electrical courses. In the second year, students will take the specialty courses for their preferred concentrations.”
Jobs abound in all of these fields, as a sampling of 2017 EST program graduates shows.
“If you want to help the environment and make a good living wage, then the EST program gives you the opportunity to get the hands-on training you need to get a career,” says graduate Jarrod Burden, who works as a plant operator at the Walla Walla Wastewater Treatment Plant.
And salaries are good.
“I am making more than I planned and I love what I do!” says Luke Kromm, now employed at Phoenix Polymers as a process technician.
The program also welcomes nontraditional students. Leslie Pinza and Ken Larkins are now working at Lamb Weston, as a plant operator and process optimizer, respectively.
Larkins emphasizes that “The EST program is about opportunity. It gave me a second chance, having not been to school in a very long time.”
Graduates of the program can also expect to find employment as licensed electricians, equipment operators at a power utility, irrigation technicians, cellar maintenance mechanics, food processing plant operators, precision agriculture technicians or renewable energy technicians, among a myriad other industrial jobs.
Current EST student Victoria Meza describes her experience in the program:
“I came into the program not knowing anything about electricity, just with a dream of becoming an electrician. After many years working in the health care field I decided to give what I really wanted to do a try, and so far it’s been the greatest decision of my life.
“Everything I have learned so far in this amazing program I have been able to put into practice. The EST program has given me the confidence and tools that I need to be successful in the blue collar world.”
Abra Bennett is Walla Walla Community College’s writer in residence. She can be reached at 509-527-3669 or via email at [email protected].