Work that WOWs

Wiregrass students get hands-on with potential careers

Immersive experience takes students on a deep dive into potential careers

“Am I doing this right?” asks a Northside Methodist School student attempting to use a hot stick — a long, insulated fiberglass rod needed to work safely on live electric equipment — to disconnect electricity from a power pole.

This is exactly the kind of interaction businesses hope for when they set up their interactive demonstrations at the annual Southeast Worlds of Work event, also known as Southeast WOW.

“That’s right, now just pull it,” responds Troy Wise, Wiregrass Electric Cooperative apprentice lineman. Wise was 1 of 5 lineworkers overseeing WEC’s exhibition in the Utilities World portion of the sprawling expo at the National Peanut Festival fairgrounds.

Utilities World

WEC Apprentice Lineman Troy Wise, left, teaches a Northside Methodist High School student how to work with common lineman tools.

Every 30 minutes, a new group of area students would start working their way through the campus, stopping at booths that caught their interest. Many of them stopped at the utility booths, drawn in by the chance to interact with the equipment.

WEC’s exhibit allowed students to dress for the job, donning thick rubber gloves and hard hats while they got a hands-on lesson about using safety equipment for live power lines, a digital electric panel and a hot stick to switch power on and off.

“A lot of them came through when they were in eighth grade and come back in high school after they’ve had time to think about it and decide that this is what they want to do,” says Johnny Hudson, WEC working foreman. “We had one student come through who wanted to be an electrical engineer. We were able to explain to him the different positions in the electrical utility world where he could use that degree, and it was something he hadn’t thought about before.”

Bethany Retherford, WEC’s human resources and compliance manager and immediate past chair of Southeast Alabama- Works!, says WOW presents an opportunity to showcase potentially lucrative careers in the electric utility world.

“We want to show the younger folks what’s possible in this industry and help them understand it’s something they may want to consider and how to achieve it,” Retherford says.

WEC Working Foreman Johnny Hudson prepares a student for a hands-on safety demonstration.

Nearby in the same building, a Wallace Community College masonry technology instructor was helping a student learn how to effectively lay brick. G.W. Long High School sophomore Zoee Lopez says she’s currently interested in real estate but is keeping an open mind for the future.

“It’s definitely not something I’d ever done before, and it’s cool to experience new things,” Lopez says. “This can open my eyes to more things I haven’t considered before.”

Important work

Alabama Living APRIL 2023 7 A WEC lineman shows a Southeast WOW participant how to stay safe while working on power lines.

Southeast WOW gives high school students an immersive career experience with over 85 local organizations participating. It introduces students to high-demand and high-paying jobs in 11 industries: agriculture; automotive; aviation; construction and building science; health sciences; hospitality; manufacturing; information technology and media; public service and military; transportation and logistics; and utilities.

“It’s had a tremendous effect over the years for the students in our area in encouraging them to learn more about what’s available to them in the Wiregrass,” Southeast WOW Executive Director Ann Marie Carr says.

WOW continues to evolve to benefit all participants. Last year, the expo split into 2 events. Southeast WOW West was hosted in Andalusia, while Southeast WOW East set up in Dothan. This way, students get more face-to-face time with each company and more companies are able to participate.

The last event introduced software that helps continue contact between students and participating organizations, including academic institutions and businesses.

WEC Working Foreman Johnny Hudson prepares a student for a hands-on safety demonstration.

“We’re excited about that because we want the opportunity to bring students back to the educators and employers they show interest in so that it’s not a lost opportunity,” Carr says. “We don’t want it to be just one and done.”

The software also allows students to update resumes and research companies that partner with Southeast WOW.

“We’re hoping that having seniors and sophomores this year lends more opportunities for co-op (work-based learning in high school), internships and employment,” Carr says.

Southeast WOW allowed thousands of students to explore a gamut of careers and career technical programs. Carr says officials from other regions’ workforce development councils also visited and could potentially use it as a model for similar events in their own communities.

“What Southeast WOW is doing is important work,” says Brad Kimbro, WEC’s chief operating officer. “They’re showcasing ready-to-fill jobs in our area. The goal is to train our workforce for good jobs that are here. We don’t want to see them leave. Workforce development is an essential piece of economic development. We can’t grow our communities without a workforce able and ready to fill new jobs.”