Westinghouse Electric kindles job opportunities

WESTMORELAND COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA - College was not a good fit for Mike Kendro.

Fresh out of Norwin High School, Kendro headed to Slippery Rock University to specialize in running track and having fun for 18 months before dropping out.

"I was way too immature to be away from home," said Kendro, 26, of Irwin. "I didn't know what I wanted to do."

Now he is a technician for WesDyne International, a subsidiary of Westinghouse Electric Co. based at its Waltz Mill campus in Westmoreland County. With an associate's degree from a technical school and lots of on-the-job training, Kendro sets up and maintains robotic equipment that inspects the vessel heads of nuclear reactors for flaws and debris.

It's a job that has him on the road for several months a year but, with overtime, pays between $40,000 and $60,000 a year, he said.

"It's great," he said, citing job security and the storied history of Westinghouse in Western Pennsylvania. "I enjoy the travel, although I have a child, and it's hard to be away."

Concerns about global warming are helping to fuel a resurgence in the nuclear reactor business worldwide, as a cleaner way to generate electricity, and industry watchers say it's not just engineers who are reaping the benefits. High-skilled construction workers, maintenance technicians and reactor operators are in high demand for the foreseeable future.

There are 104 reactors operating in the United States, and proposals for 30 more. Another 170 are planned globally over the next 15 to 20 years, the World Nuclear Association estimates.

That means big business for Westinghouse, one of the world's leading reactor builders. The Monroeville-based firm won a $5.3 billion contract last year to build four reactors in China, and is vying to build plants in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Canada. It is the chosen designer for more than a dozen of the proposed domestic reactors, and in recent weeks signed two reactor construction contracts - the first such deals in the United States since the Carter administration.

New business and an expected wave of retirements in the next decade mean good-paying jobs now, and more to come, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The trade association estimates that it takes at least 1,400 specialized construction workers to build a plant, and at least 400 to maintain it. Universities and community colleges are tapping into grants from a $15 million Nuclear Regulatory Commission fund designed to boost the pool of future workers.

Westinghouse has hired 2,000 people since 2005 - 20 percent of its global work force - and plans to add 400 to 500 more for each of the next four or five years, said spokesman Vaughn Gilbert. Although about 60 percent of Westinghouse's hires are engineers, Gilbert said, the others have associate's degrees, or less.

"Times are very good for Westinghouse, as for the industry. But we are not only hiring people with four-year educations," he said. "You can succeed if you have the skills and the right training."

The two-year associate's degree in engineering technology that Kendro earned at ITT in Monroeville can help prepare would-be workers for such jobs.

Nate Bellavance and Sharon Neil acquired those skills in the Navy.

The field service technicians based at the Waltz Mill facility near Madison work in crews of about a dozen, traveling up to nine months a year to reactors needing maintenance and refueling.

Neil, 35, a Navy nuclear electrician's mate for nearly a decade, was recruited from a job operating a traditional power plant in San Jose, Calif. The high cost of living on the West Coast drove her to pursue other options.

"I was making not much more than the scale we make now, living in California," said Neil, a native of Corpus Christi, Texas, who lives in Mt. Pleasant. "You just get by."

Bellavance, 27, who grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and lives in Somerset, said he found college unaffordable and joined the military to find direction. A machinist's mate aboard the submarine USS Jacksonville, he was recruited before his five-year tour ended.

"It's a lot of good jobs - jobs they can't send overseas," he said of the nuclear power resurgence. "It's good for this country."

Neil and Bellavance said they earn between $50,000 and $70,000 a year, with overtime contributing to a third of their pay.

There's little time to forge relationships at home, but friendship with colleagues and the challenge of the work makes up for it, each said. They both have friends and relatives who, unwilling to take jobs far from home, struggle to find steady work.

"You spend most of your life at work. You might as well enjoy what you're doing," Bellavance said. "If you go along on that premise, everything else will work its way out."


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