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Geothermal training prepares Nevadans for jobs

April 15, 2010 - 4:52pm

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When geothermal power companies began moving to northwestern Nevada’s Churchill County, each one seemed to bring an out of state workforce with them.

“It’s not that the companies didn’t want to hire locals,” says Michal Hewitt of Churchill County Social Services. “They just weren’t trained to do this type of work.”

Armed with advice from power companies and Recovery Act funding, social services partnered with the nearby Fallon campus of Western Nevada College and created an entry-level geothermal class to prepare local workers for jobs in the geothermal industry. The class spends three 40-hour weeks learning their way around geothermal safety, equipment and power plant management.

A lot of people are interested in participating in the class, says Michal. Some students even waited three months on the waiting list before securing a spot. The funding provided enough money for three sessions of the class, which will allow 40 students to complete the course in 2010.

“It’s a really big deal,” says Michal. “The geothermal industry is growing so much here. All of these people are just looking to get into the industry and see where they can go from there.”

While the majority of students are in their 20s and 30s, ages range from 18 to 55, with most having a few years of construction experience. Western Nevada College’s Fallon Campus Dean Bus Scharmann says regardless of age and experience, the students are eager to learn the training techniques.

“When they’re told to be here at 8 a.m., they show up at 7:30. A lot of these students are used to hard work, they take right to this and have caught on very quickly,” said Bus. “For most of them, the transition has been very smooth.”

The first week of the course is spent in classroom, where students complete certification for seven different Occupational Safety and Health Administration categories.

For the next seven days of class, students are taken to nearby Vulcan Power Company, where they complete the bulk of their geothermal training in an equipment yard learning the specifics of geothermal machinery and practicing maintenance techniques. The training is designed to prepare workers for the drilling industry.  Some of the tasks required are hand tool identification and use, drill rig components, spill prevention plans and work station responsibilities.

The last three days are spent studying power plant operations and debriefing students on their experience.

“We designed this program to fill the need of geothermal companies out here,” says Michal. “These jobs pay well for a starting position, and they’re a lot better than a lot of the alternatives out there.”

The geothermal program is more than just three weeks of training in the field. There’s also a two-day seminar before the training even begins where students learn the importance of teamwork, decision making and leadership. After the three weeks of geothermal training is complete, the students then participate in a three-week job club, where they learn about resume writing and interview techniques.

Both Bus and Michal hope to continue hosting these classes in the future. “We’re helping these local people find jobs in an industry that is happening right now,” says Bus. “It’s something I really hope we can continue.”

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