Continuing Radiation Protection Technology Classes Have Been Taught at Former Southeast Consolidated School Building for Past Two Years
During the past two years, the former Southeast Consolidated Public Schools building at Stella has served another type of academic environment.
The Southeast Nebraska Career Institute has placed about 50 persons into jobs in the nuclear industry.
Participants ranging in age from 19-60 years became employed upon completion of radiation protection technology classes.
“We start careers. We rejuvenate careers. It gets you into the industry, which is a huge milestone,” said Kevin Gardner. A veteran of the nuclear industry, Gardner established the institute with Steve Bantz of Stella.
The Southeast Nebraska Career Institute incorporated in late 2009. The pilot program began early in 2010. There were three separate 90-day classes each in 2010 and 2011.
Former Employee at Cooper Nuclear Station
A native of Arkansas, Gardner worked 15 years as a traveling contract radiation protection technician. He worked at Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville from 2000 until February 2011. Gardner’s wife, Lora, is a native of Blair. She traveled for five years but has worked at Cooper the past few years as a radiation program technician.
While at Cooper, Gardner primarily was a supervisor and a contract manager.
“When Southeast Nebraska Career Institute started to take off, it became evident I was going to have to choose one or the other,” he explained as to why he left his employment at Cooper.
Bantz is employed at Cooper Nuclear Station and attended school in the Stella building. Gardner said Bantz wanted to see the building put to good use.
Utilizes Small Part of Former School Building
The Southeast Nebraska Career Institute utilizes the former band room and a small adjacent room where class participants change into protective nuclear gear. There are three types of protective nuclear gear: a wet set, double set and single set.
By utilizing the newer part of the building, originally built in the late 1960s, it is not necessary to heat or cool the entire building, Gardner said.
Fiber optics are available for anyone who wants to utilize the rest of the building, he said.
Science, Mathematics Included in Curriculum
“We have the classroom set up like it would be if you were in a nuclear plant. Hands-on and theory material are taught in the same room. We want to keep it as simple as possible. We teach real life material. The classes are specifically geared to radiation protection technology. I’ve done this 25 years as a contract manager at Cooper. I know what the end product is,” Gardner said.
The curriculum includes basic algebra and basic science. It advances to nuclear type theory material.
“You need to be able to manipulate an algebraic equation. You have to know basic science, such as the periodic table of elements, how to use it and how elements decay down,” he said.
Classes have met from 4:30-10 p.m. Based on the progress of participants, classes met Saturdays and Sundays as needed. The classes are user-friendly. The schedule allows most local people to maintain their regular employment. Some who are employed during the day take afternoon classes.
Rigorous Process to Get Into Classes
Gardner said there is a rigorous process to be admitted into the classes. It includes an interview and a pretest.
“It’s technical. We give them a pretest which allows me to evaluate whether you will be able to make it through the class. I make sure that they will fit the nuclear industry. I have an end product to get to the people who hire them. I interview them if they want to travel. I take the results to hiring companies. We make a collective decision whether this person would make a good fit for the nuclear industry. People who come through this program come to work. It gives you an ‘in’ to the nuclear industry. I get commitments to hire these people from the hiring companies. It’s a (very) difficult industry to get into,” Gardner said.
“The business model I have is I get commitments to hire people and I train that many people. That’s why I have a 100 percent placement rate. I have a commitment for hiring. They [employers] will take 10 students for the next class. It assumes that they pass the class and pass the final test. If they do so, I put them to work. They’re well-paying jobs. When the individuals complete the class, they start work on a five- to six-week outage and they earn $15,000 to $20,000. We charge $7,000 to put the students through a class. We make sure they will get their money back on the first outage which they work,” he said.
In contrast, Gardner said that persons who earn a traditional college degree generally do not start with a salary doubled what they paid in tuition.
“The qualifications and accreditations from this program never expire. It’s incredibly versatile,” he said.
Next Class Anticipated This Summer
While Gardner said he is qualified to teach the classes, he hires current qualified technicians from Cooper Nuclear Station as teachers.
“That is great. They’re up to date on everything,” Gardner said.
Gardner said the next class may start in late June or early July. He said he is awaiting commitments to hire people for the start of the outage season. Those who take the next class will go to work during fall outages. Outages are conducted during the time of the year when it is beneficial for utilities to shut down. Outages do not occur during the summer unless necessary, he said.
“It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s a successful business model to put 100 percent of the people to work,” Gardner said.
“We’ve had people come from across the United States to take the class. There’s a certain amount of commitments. I get more people interested than I have commitments,” he said.
The last class included participants from Arkansas, Louisiana, Washington and a security specialist from Beirut, Lebanon.
Gardner said he had to send the last class out early because there is such a demand for people who come through the class because of outages.
“I’ve been in the industry so long I know what they want,” he said.
Gardner said he wanted to start the radiation protection technology classes about the time he learned that Southeast Consolidated School was closing. From a business standpoint, he thought that it was financially better to have the classes at the Stella site than to lease another building.
“I can perform what I need to do here. It saved me a lot of operation costs. From a business function, it made more sense to do it here. This is a solid, successful program,” Gardner said.
He said that he has worked with officials of Pinnacle Career Institute in Kansas City, Mo. to get the program accredited. Pinnacle staff have developed a two-year associate degree program in radiation protection. Gardner said it is possible that Southeast Nebraska Career Institute and Pinnacle Career Institute may eventually merge. That step would allow participants in Southeast Nebraska Career Institute to transfer their credits to the Pinnacle Career Institute degree program.
“It’s a great program and we’re only getting started. We can put hundreds of people to work. I take pride in that to create 50 jobs in two years, it’s successful. It’s got a huge potential,” he said.
“We’re getting a lot of good public relations out of it. Since I’ve been in the industry so long, we put them in a hands-on course. It’s more career education. It teaches hands-on stuff. When you get done with it, they’re going to do it,” he said.
The pass rate of the class has exceeded 95 percent. However, everyone who takes the class finds employment, Gardner said.
“This is the best program of its type because of its format. It is getting noticed in the nuclear industry,” he said.
Gardner said that he has received references from relatives of class participants.
He said that he worked with others in establishing Southeast Nebraska Career Institute. Gardner praised the efforts of Jerry Joy, Stella Village Board chair.
“Without Jerry Joy, this institute would not have happened, even with all of the contacts I have in the industry,” he said.
Gardner said that he and Joy have worked together the past three years, in acquiring the building and making sure that the programs worked out.
“Jerry’s helped a lot. He’s put me in contact with development specialists. We worked together to make this happen. There’s no way I would have done this without Jerry’s knowledge about the phone, fiber optics and programs. It’s been a team effort. It’s been a long time coming,” Gardner said.
He said he was placed in contact with such individuals as Kevin Burnison of the Southeast Nebraska Development District, Stephanie Schrader of Nebraska City and Becky Cromer of Falls City. Gardner said Joy also helped get Gardner into contact with Jeff Freeman, owner of Pinnacle Career Institute. Gardner has also worked with Peru State College President Dan Hanson.
“Everyone benefits. It’s a no-loss situation, for the Stella community and for those who take the classes,” he said.
“It’s benefitted Stella a lot. It has taken a building that could be vacant and never used and gave it a good practical use. I’m the proudest of all of the students who have gone through it and been placed in jobs. The best credentials you can give is you have 100 percent job placement. What more can you want?” Joy said.
“Kevin’s knowledge of the nuclear knowledge has made this one of the better nuclear training programs in the United States. You need to be a visionary type person. You see how it functions and how it works,” Joy said.
Future plans may include classes in scaffold, valve tech, instrument in control and chemical, Gardner said.
Gardner said that he has worked with representatives of the two major companies that hire radiation protection technologists: Bartlett Nuclear and DZ Atlantic. There are more than 100 nuclear reactors in the United States. Besides Cooper Nuclear Station, Nebraska also has the Fort Calhoun station operated by the Omaha Public Power District. There is one nuclear reactor each in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is divided into four regions. Nebraska and neighboring states are in the 19-state Region 4.
“The satisfaction is that you get a wide range of ages from across the United States to take a career path. You’re making a difference when you put these people to work. You’re creating jobs. In this economy, if you can create a job, you’re very successful.
“The nuclear industry is great. The industry has treated my wife and me well. That’s why I feel good about giving back to the industry. I’m putting people into this career path. It’s very satisfying,” Gardner said.