Radiation protection technicians at TVA are in short supply, or officials are expecting them to be in a few years.
Mr. Ron Bruno, senior manager at TVA's Nuclear Power Department, said officials foresee a shortage of workers trained to enforce radiation protocols and monitor for potential exposure, so the federal power program joined with Chattanooga State to fill the gap.
"It was a perfect storm for us, and we realized we really needed to do something about the next generation," he said.
Reasons for the shortage include an aging work force and renewed focus on nuclear power, Mr. Bruno said.
Officials at Tennessee Valley Authority and Chattanooga State began working two years ago to develop the associate of applied science degree program, said Tim McGhee, dean of engineering and technology at Chattanooga State
"We have to listen to the industry in the training programs," he said.
The program began with 19 students and now has 60 with radiation protection as their declared major. Thirteen students will make up the program's first graduating class in May.
Many of those have been working 12-hour shifts around the clock at an internship at TVA's Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant, learning to do the jobs they hope to get after graduation.
Charles Owenby, 27, a student planning to graduate in May, said he was studying to be an X-ray technician when he heard about the program.
He now hopes to get a job as a radiation technician making about $55,000 right out of school. He said many make more than $80,000, and some bring in six figures.
"That's not bad for a two-year degree, and they are expecting a large turnover in the next couple years," Mr. Owenby said.
TVA and Chattanooga State have a memorandum of understanding that they will consider students for employment after they graduate, but there are no guarantees, Mr. McGhee said.
Even if they don't find work at TVA, they should be in high demand elsewhere.
"It is a highly employable degree," Mr. McGhee said. "They can go to work in any nuclear power plant in the U.S."
Latricia Lloyd, 48, is counting on it. She is a sales rep with a national company and already has a bachelor's degree in business management. For the past year and a half, she has studied physics, math, reactor theory and biochemistry on her way to completing the program.
"The economy drove me into it," she said, noting that her company cut her pay and began outsourcing jobs. "I'm hoping to take the technical degree and couple it with my BS."
Mr. Bruno said students are not promised a job, but the training makes them highly sought after in a variety of career fields.
"They are getting some real-life experience and are applying what they learn in the classroom in real life," he said. "It's a win-win for both sides."