Sharpening Faculties & Leaders

Wiregrass Electric partnerships support education and economic development

From left, Wiregrass Electric Cooperative journeyman lineman Britt Caldwell joins WEC Human Resources Manager Bethany Retherford discuss the cooperative’s operations with Enterprise educators Shavonne Burrows and Mitchell McQueen.

An area needs to have critical infrastructure to recruit new companies, but just as importantly, it must invest in the labor force.

“You can have all the sites, broadband, utilities, and road infrastructure, but if you don’t have the workforce to support an interested business, it won’t matter,” says Matt Parker, Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce president. “Embracing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) better prepares us. That helps us build a strong workforce and helps us prove that we can supply what an industry needs.”

In order to thrive, there must also be leaders who have the knowledge and vision to grow an area. Wiregrass Electric Cooperative recognizes this and conducted two events in July to support these efforts: a STEM externship with local educators and a developmental workshop for emerging area leaders.

“Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) understands that our organization grows as the area grows,” WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro says. “Any approach to economic development must be multifaceted. We stand willing to assist in infrastructure improvements as well as skill development throughout our region.”

Teaching Teachers

This year the Alabama STEM Council, a governmental initiative to support the expansion of science and mathematics education, launched an externship program. The program pairs teachers with local industries, providing the educators with insight into the skills and education their students need to excel in local jobs.

WEC volunteered to assist in the program through Human Resources Manager Bethany Retherford, who also serves as the chair of the workforce development program Southeast AlabamaWorks.

Enterprise educators Shavonne Burrows and Mitchell McQueen, middle, took a tour of WEC as part of the Alabama STEM Council’s pilot externship program in July.

“I thought this would be the perfect place to implement this program,” she says. “We have a variety of jobs here. Some of them may be career/technical, some of them may require an associate’s degree and some may require more education. We have something that can appeal to everybody.”

Two Enterprise City Schools educators, sixth-grade teacher Shavonne Burrows and high school chemistry teacher Mitchell McQueen, toured WEC headquarters in July. Retherford and Kimbro described how the cooperative operates, the types of employees it has and the skills needed to safely and effectively complete each task.

The amount of technology needed to reliably deliver power to more than 25,000 meters impressed McQueen.

“I was amazed at the systems WEC had in place to check the health of the power grid and to allow them to respond to outages as quickly as possible,” he says.

Both McQueen and Burrows note the externship visits to WEC and two other area businesses have altered their approach to learning.

“The main skill businesses want out of a new hire is dependability and not necessarily expertise,” McQueen says, noting a planned emphasis on soft skills. “The expertise aspect of a job is often learned through on-the-job training, and learning is a lifelong process. For example, the linemen I spoke with received a minimum of six years of training before they are considered an expert in their field.”

“A lot of industries are looking for young workers with good work ethics and a willingness to work hard each day,” Burrows says. “In return, jobs are offering individuals on-the-job training and certification directly out of high school. Students will also have the opportunity to work their way up to management if they choose to.”

Retherford says the connections made during the externship carry value for the cooperative, as well — especially as retirements linger in the not-too-distant future for some employees.

“Teachers are our business and industry recruiters. They work with children, the future workforce, every day,” she says. “We need to show them what opportunities are out there.”

Building Future Leaders

When businesses seek to build in or relocate to an area, local leaders must answer questions that could affect the industry’s performance. These cover anything from existing and planned infrastructure to workforce quality to local governmental policies about taxes.

From left, Enterprise educators Shavonne Burrows and Mitchell McQueen learn about the technologies WEC implements to run a reliable grid.

Succinctly and effectively answering those queries takes streamlined communication from several different entities. Wiregrass Resource Conservation and Development Council’s LEAD Wiregrass classes seek to build camaraderie between budding area leaders while providing them knowledge about resources that could help spur major projects.

WEC has sponsored the LEAD Wiregrass program since its inception and hosts some of the presentations at its corporate headquarters.

“Through these classes, new leaders learn of the challenges and remedies that exist for their organizations as well as the organizations around them,” Kimbro says. “They can apply lessons learned from one another to better their industries and the region as a whole. All the while they are learning new skills that sharpen their leadership abilities.”

Ryan Tate, WEC systems engineer, is a member of the current LEAD Wiregrass class. Even though the class is in its early stages, he has reaped some benefits already.

“One of the things we’re always talking about is projects and the grant money that is available to help with them,” he says. “Anything you can do to better the community is a good thing.”

WEC’s sponsorship of his participation in the class proves the cooperative’s commitment to creating a better region, Tate notes.

“It’s very obvious that Wiregrass Electric is as committed to their communities as anyone,” he says.