Source: Victoria Advocate by Jessica Priest
WADSWORTH – Years ago, a Palacios High School student told a packed auditorium about how science, technology, engineering and math piqued her interest. Then-Gov. Rick Perry was in the audience to present the school with a check to encourage other students’ interest in the subjects. Today, Perry is the U.S. Secretary of Energy and that student, Elizabeth Castanon, is a mechanical design engineer at South Texas Project (STP) Nuclear Operating Company, a few miles from her childhood home. STP’s yearslong effort to draw a diverse workforce from Matagorda County is being put to the test now that nearly half its workforce can retire. “We knew this moment was coming,” said Clarence Fenner, STP’s supervisor of talent acquisition and planning. “We’re on pace to hire 155 this year, and we believe we’re going to breach 200 the next.” It’s not easy to convince someone to move to a rural community, where nuclear plants are traditionally built. Realizing this, STP began partnering with schools in 2007 to grow its own workforce.
It grew Castanon. She was the president of Powerset, which stands for Powerful Opportunities for Women Eager and Ready for Science, Engineering and Technology. It was created to address the retirements and is now in 11 schools, Palacios High School Principal Stephanie Garcia said. In Powerset, women in the nuclear industry mentor female students with a 3.5 grade point average who have scored highly on either their biology or algebra I end-of-course-exams. “With the ratio of males to females in STEM being lopsided, the next logical step would be to seek what seems to be untapped resources – female students – to fill the gap,” Garcia said. Only 26 percent of STP’s workforce is women, but Fenner said more of these women are in jobs traditionally filled by men. “There’s never enough,” Castanon said. “Women bring a different perspective. When you have people who all come from the same background, the same school and the same thinking, then you make the same mistakes.”
STP is the largest employer in Matagorda County. One reactor began operating in 1988, while the other began operating in 1989. It was a big deal to get a job at STP then, and it still is. Fenner said an entry-level position pays $45 an hour, or $93,600 a year before taxes. In contrast, the median household income in Matagorda County in 2015 was $40,797, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Martin Cortez and his 25-year-old daughter, Courtney, are a picture of this. When Cortez graduated high school in Bay City in 1977, his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, so he worked for a local electrician, who taught him the trade.
With STP constructing the reactors then, electricians were needed to wire new homes. When that work dried up, Cortez was an electrical contractor for plants in the area while starting his family. That work was, at times, unreliable, though. He still remembers walking into a motel’s conference room in 1984 and applying with 200 other men to be an electrician at STP. “I’ve always thought I was so blessed. There were only six that they were going to hire then,” he said.