Gulf Power, an investor-owned utility company, is a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southern Company and has more than 1,400 employees serving more than 430,000 customers throughout eight counties in Northwest Florida. Faced with a shrinking availability of qualified workers, the company partnered with West Florida High School (WFHS) of Advanced Technology in 2001 to start the Gulf Power Academy. This four-year program integrates traditional academics with craft and technical training to prepare students for a career in the electric utility industry and for college.
A contributing factor in the construction industry’s critical shortage of skilled, well-educated workers is the lack of craft training opportunities in public schools. To meet this challenge, Gulf Power Company in Pensacola, Florida, created a unique educational program at a local high school that is proving to be a model for how the industry can overcome this shortage and grow a talented workforce for years to come. Gulf Power Academy at WFHS demonstrates how the industry can implement energy-related career academies.
Gulf Power has a long history of partnering with education, but creating Gulf Power Academy was the first time the organization has helped develop curricula, design instruction and teach students. Additionally, Gulf Power has become a NCCER Accredited Training Sponsor for many high schools, technical centers and state colleges in Northwest Florida that want to offer NCCER training.
While WFHS offers traditional academic classes, it is also a wall-to-wall career academy school where every student is enrolled in a career program that leads to industry credentials. The Gulf Power Academy curriculum prepares students for entry-level careers in the energy industry or the option to pursue postsecondary education in technical occupations like engineering.
When the academy started, industrial electricity was not approved for instruction in Florida high schools, and there were not any curriculum standards that met what the company envisioned for the program. To fix this, Gulf Power Academy led the Florida Energy Workforce Consortium in partnering with the Florida Department of Education to add a new career cluster of energy in Florida and to write curriculum frameworks in this career cluster that would better meet industry needs. At the secondary level, the Energy Industry Career Cluster includes five different curriculum pathways: Energy Technician; Power Distribution Technician; Energy Generation Technician; Solar Energy Technician; and Turbine Generator Maintenance, Inspection and Repair.
Gulf Power Academy currently offers a four-year curriculum for Energy Technician. The curriculum includes craft-training courses developed by NCCER and the Center for Energy Workforce Development, a national organization that has developed an Energy Industry Fundamentals course and credential. Students who complete the program receive NCCER credentials in Core Curriculum, Electrical Level 1 and Introduction to Alternative Energy.
Students in their senior year can qualify for an internship-style program known as the Advanced Career Experience (ACE). In the fall semester, ACE students visit Gulf Power’s facilities, where they learn about the company and the different career options available. At the end of the semester, students choose a career path, and the academy then designs an on-the-job schedule around that path for the spring semester. In spring, students report on their own to Gulf Power on odd calendar days and are trained by Gulf Power employees working in their chosen career path. Students work four hours a day and return to school for the last class period of the day. They are paid minimum wage after they pass the company’s pre-employment tests, with the goal to give students a realistic preview of what the profession entails. The experience also gives Gulf Power the opportunity to closely evaluate students. As a result, Gulf Power has hired 50 graduates from the program, and many of them have become model employees.
Gulf Power Academy is a great way to grow skilled workers, but it is an even better way to model what all industries can do in a partnership with education. Industry cannot simply come in and say, “This is what we need” and have schools teach it. Collaboration has to take place to ensure that what is taught in school matches up with exactly what the industry needs. Gulf Power is working to create similar academies for other industries, such as advanced manufacturing. The ultimate goal for Gulf Power Academy is to be a model for how industry can work hand-in-hand with education to make sure that the demand for a well-trained workforce never exceeds the supply.