Duke Energy and Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) teamed up to introduce the energy sector to local youth with diverse backgrounds, demonstrating careers that might otherwise remain unknown
Held on Wednesday at GRU’s Eastside Operations Center, the Youth Energy Academy featured rides in bucket trucks and solar power models. It’s the first time the academy has been held in Gainesville, and around 10 students showed up.
Duke Energy created the program 10 years ago. Derick Farfan helped start the program while working as an intern for Duke and now he serves as lead strategy and planning manager for the company while also educating kids across Florida through the academies.
“We try to remove that the perception that it's only poles and wires,” Farfan said. “So, there's IT, and we have crews that work strictly in virtual reality.”
In the past month, the city of Gainesville has received nearly 900,000 spam emails that require the IT department to monitor. Hawthorne Middle/High School alum Kirk Selph explained his work as IT department supervisor.
Farfan walked students through a model solar demonstration with power lines and homes. Farfan said teams at Duke Energy just work in virtual reality to create training simulations for employees while other positions need lawyers and even nurses.
“We want to have a pathway for them to learn about the space, be exposed to all these different careers and, eventually, hope to plant seeds that when they graduate high school or they graduate college, that they see the utility space as a viable future for them,” Farfan said.
Duke Energy has partnered with other utilities to set up academies and the 100 Black Men of Greater Florida Gainesville reached out to find students for the academy. Farfan also works in the Florida chapter of the American Association of Blacks in Energy who provides support for the program.
Programs have spread into Orlando, St. Petersburg, Ocala, Lake Wales and South Florida and impacted more than 400 kids, Farfan said. Some of those students graduated and perused careers in the energy sector working with Duke or another power provider.
“If I get one student to go into the utility space, even if it's not with Duke Energy, that's a win still,” Farfan said. “This could really set their future generations on a certain path to have generational wealth and so that’s the plan here.”
Ray McKnight, president of 100 Black Men of Greater Florida Gainesville, said the program fits into other work the organization does. In June, McKnight helped lead the fifth annual Aviation Academy for minority students interested in that field.
“It's all designed to help kids,” McKnight said. “Our motto is what they see is what they'll be. So, if we can present enough positive images for him to see, hopefully that'll keep them off the streets away from some of the violence that takes places.”
He points to another benefit of the Youth Energy Academy. Even if students don’t enter the field, their appreciation for energy and the employees who provide it grows.
“I mean, energy is something we just kind of take for granted,” McKnight said. “But when you see all the work that really goes into bringing it from the source to the house, we start appreciating these guys and what they do.”