By Christina Lee Knauss
High school students learned about keeping the lights on and natural gas flowing to homes at a special event sponsored by Dominion Energy.
The Skilled Craft Career Day drew more than 60 students from around the Midlands to a place that the public rarely gets to see – the Lake Murray Training Center, where all of Dominion’s linemen, mechanics, electricians and other workers get their hands-on training. The goal was to get the students interested in possible future careers providing power to the utility’s 780,000 electric and 400,000 natural gas customers in South Carolina.
The March 24 event was also the latest effort by a large Midlands employer to generate interest at the high school level about joining the skilled workforce.
Industries across the board are experiencing skilled workforce shortages that are only expected to get worse. Dominion Energy faces a shortage of linemen and other skilled workers in the future, one company leaders hope to head off with events like this career day and expanded outreach to schools around the state.
“We have a huge need for workers because two years of COVID-19 took a lot of people out of the workforce and we’re facing a lot of retirements as the baby boomers start to retire,” Keller Kissam, president of Dominion Energy South Carolina, said. “With those retirements, we’re going to be losing a lot of people with technical skills, and we’re hiring right now to get people trained to fill those positions.”
The utility wants to reach out to all students, but Kissam said Dominion Energy’s career opportunities in the skilled trades might be especially appealing to those who want to go immediately into the work world after graduation instead of attending a two- or four-year institution.
A recent high school graduate can get hired by Dominion and immediately begin a training program for many of its most in-demand skilled trade positions, including lineman, gas operation technician and electrician. The company offers paid apprenticeship programs in these jobs and others that allow the new hire to earn a competitive wage while receiving on-the-job training. Lineman and gas journeyman apprenticeships last for four years.
“We’d like them to know that the work here is hard, but the rewards are great,” Kissam said. “Someone can come here at 18 and get a job that will last them through the rest of their lives because people are always going to need electricity, and the need is only going to grow. We’ve got many employees who came here right after high school, went through training and ended up staying with the company for 35 or 40 years. You can make good money while also doing something that helps your community.”
The career day drew students from Heyward Career Center in Richland District One, Spring Valley and Ridgeview high schools in Richland District Two, Fairfield Technology Center, and the Orangeburg Consolidated School District.
Dominion employees were on hand to demonstrate skills related to their jobs, show the equipment they use and describe a typical work day. Students rotated between stations related to gas operations, power generation, electric distribution and transmission. Linemen climbed training poles and repaired transmitters while gas engineers showed how they install, test and repair pipelines. The students also received a quick tour of the nearby McMeekin power plant and talked to staff members there.
Jeff Temoney, principal of Spring Valley High School in Richland District 2, attended, along with Schiria Wilson, chair of the school’s career and technology education department, and two students. Temoney said the goal of Spring Valley’s career education program is to help students get training for good jobs that also help the larger community.
“We’re in the middle of a workforce shortage and we want to offer education that meets the need of both the students and the businesses that are going to hire them,” Temoney said. “Getting a job at a place like Dominion is something that can be great for the students, their families and the community as a whole.
“They’re going to be benefiting themselves, their families and society as a whole by doing this work.”
The Midlands needs more events like Dominion’s career day, said Cynthia Bennett, chief diversity officer for the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, who also attended the Lake Murray event. Bennett said she is working with companies around the state to develop paid apprenticeships and other programs to expose as many students as possible to the full array of careers available to them, including the skilled trades.
Another goal is to increase outreach to underserved communities and help companies build diverse workforces that reflect the communities they serve.
“What we have heard from businesses is that we need to start at the high school level to get potential workers into the pipeline,” Bennett said. “We want to help guidance counselors to learn what opportunities are out there for students, including good paying jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree. We need to get parental support, too, for students who want to go into these fields.”