Student Success Stories

Power degree benefits ICC graduates and Minnesota Power

Matt Arnold remembers feeling a bit lost the first time he saw Boswell Energy Center from inside the power plant.

“Holy cow! This place is enormous!” he recalled thinking as he toured Boswell several years ago with classmates from the Itasca Community College Industrial Technology Power Generation Program. “It was pretty intimidating the first time I was here.”

Today, the environmental systems operator easily navigates the power plant as one of 19 graduates of the ICC program who have been hired by Minnesota Power since the program began in the fall of 2009. Both Arnold and Tim Magnuson, also a Power Generation graduate, credit the program with preparing them to work at a power plant. Magnuson has worked for MP for three years and Arnold will mark his second-year anniversary in June.

A changing workforce

The college’s Industrial Technology-Power Generation program grew out of discussions between Minnesota Power and the Northeast Higher Education District, a consortium of five area community colleges. Recognizing that a surge of retirements was just around the corner, MP and education leaders began developing a training program to help prepare students to replace those workers who soon would be leaving MP and other industrial employers. Minnesota Power brought in subject matter experts and the colleges brought in curriculum experts. Together they created the 60-credit program that offers an associate’s degree from ICC. Nick Wooner, an instrument, lab and environmental specialist at Rapids Energy Center, is in his first semester of teaching in the program.

Instructors like Wooner, who have direct experience in what they’re teaching, is one way programs like the one at ICC differentiate themselves. Wooner teaches Process Control where his second-year students learn about the instrumentation used to control process systems along with their interactions through automatic and cascade controls, set points, process variables, and process diagrams. Wooner can draw on his 15 years of professional experience, 10 of them at Rapids, when he enters the classroom.

While Wooner has trained other people on the job, this is his first time teaching in a college classroom. He said he was nervous when he got up in front of his 16 students for the first time in January, but having a solid background in the material he’s teaching has made it easier to relax. And Wooner’s students aren’t the only ones benefitting from the classes on Monday and Wednesday afternoons.

“This is one of the best professional development things I’ve done,” he said, noting that teaching is helping him improve his public speaking and organizational skills.

Saving time and money

Paul Undeland, manager of thermal business operations for Boswell 4, said the Power Generation program has made a big difference in finding qualified job applicants to fill positions as the pace of retirements increased. Program graduates have a basic understanding of how a power plant works before they walk in the door and that saves time and money spent on training, he said.

“Unfortunately, we can’t hire all the graduates,” he said. “It’s a hard decision to pare down to one — we always want to hire five, six or seven.”

Program coordinator Jill Murray said the program attracts a mix of traditional and nontraditional students. They take classes in boilers and auxiliary pumps, industrial electricity, applied mathematics, power generation problem solving, environmental regulations and safety and process control, among others. Proximity to Boswell also makes it easy to schedule tours of the plant and arrange internships.

And while many in the program hope to land a position at Minnesota Power, graduates also find jobs in other industries and at power plants outside of Minnesota, Murray said. A total of 67 students have graduated from the program.

Magnuson, one of the Power Generation graduates now working at Boswell, said he has no regrets about enrolling in the program.

“It was definitely a great move,” he said.