Dams demand best of operator trainees

(Above: Les Rice guides visitors through a quick tour of the J. Strom Thurmond Dam.)

AUGUSTA, Ga. – J. Strom Thurmond Dam currently operates at 98 percent proficiency but its operators are expected to perform above this percentage.

Operator Trainee Les Rice routinely meets these lofty expectations inside an examination room where he must demonstrate working knowledge of complex power systems and operations or risk losing his only source of income.

Rice shoulders these stakes during verbal examinations held every six months as a trainee in the Operations Training Program. The program is part of a federal pathways initiative that shuffles recent college graduates through a comprehensive plant management program at three of the Savannah District’s dams.

The competitive program accepts only an elite crop of qualified candidates who must endure 4-5 years of demanding requirements surrounding dam operations. Class sizes are based on the number of retirements projected within the 4-5 year training period.

Successful trainees are fully qualified to work as operations plant managers and replenish open positions due to retirements, said Michael Martin, a training program manager for the South Atlantic Division since 2005.

Engineers, plant managers and other leaders from the South Atlantic Division comprise a board of experts who subject trainees to about four hours of questioning during biennial exams. All board members must unanimously agree to advance an individual to the next phase of the program. If trainees fail an exam twice, they are dismissed from the program.

These stipulations didn’t deter Rice, who entered the program at age 36. He isn’t your typical pathways candidate, but he does possess a quality all trainees share: determination.

Rice walked away from 15 years of experience in the private sector to take a chance with the Corps, a pivot that could setback his career or pay huge dividends. The move may substantially increase his annual income or earn him a trip to the unemployment line, he said.

“I was taking a leap of faith,” he said. “I initially took a cut in pay but I had topped out in the private sector.”

During the first year, trainees rotate between mechanical and electrical assignments at Hartwell, Russell or Thurmond dam. During formative years, trainees spool up on mechanical and electrical applications, such as the operation of generators, turbines and raw water system, and learn how to respond to emergencies.

When trainees demonstrate exceptional aptitude in specialized areas, they advance to a holistic operations trainee appointment in the final few years of the program, he said.

Steep learning curves and frequent testing differentiate the program from most cooperatives and internships in the Corps. Graduates must acclimate to the demands of managing dam operations and maintaining high proficiency statuses.

Dam proficiency is measured by how well mechanical and electrical staff maintain equipment so that operational staff can ensure power generation schedules are met. Optimal proficiency directly affects power supply in areas near the Savannah River Basin, he said.

Under this pressure, trainees gather everything there is to know about equipment, systems and operations to prepare for exams. They understand the consequence of hubris is an early departure from the program, Rice said.

“You can’t do like you did in high school where you cram the night before,” he said. “If you don’t do anything at all and then try to cram a month out then you’re wasting your time.”

These study habits have propelled Rice to an operations trainee assignment where he exceeds expectations, said Martin.

“Les has consistently been one of our top performers,” said Martin. “His capacity for leadership and firm grip on processes proves why he excels as a trainee.”

While Rice said he’s proud of the reputation he’s built over the past five years, he awaits the opportunity to take his senior’s test, an 8-12 hour examination that, if he passes, will graduate him on to work autonomously as a shift operator at any of the Savannah District’s dams.

Passing the crucial milestone will affirm his risky decision to commit a half decade of energy and effort. But Rice has taken his destiny into his own hands, working tirelessly to fortify his professional standing.

And with each passing bar, he whittles chances of regretting his decision, he said.

~ Chelsea Smith, Corporate Communications Office

About U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multimillion dollar military construction program at 11 Army and Air Force installations in Georgia and North Carolina. We also manage water resources across the Coastal Georgia region, including maintenance dredging of the Savannah and Brunswick harbors; operation of three hydroelectric dams and reservoirs along the upper Savannah River; and administration of an extensive stream and wetland permitting and mitigation program within the state of Georgia. Follow us on Twitter @SavannahCorps and on Facebook.com/SavannahCorps
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