Skilled to Work: EPIC program takes the FAME model into chemical processing plants

Students spend three days per week at a factory and two days in the classroom.

Posted: Sep 19, 2019 6:21 PM
Updated: Sep 19, 2019 7:19 PM

Working for a chemical processing plant wasn’t always the plan for Allie Appleton. She spent a year and a half studying business administration before she decided to switch schools and career directions.

"When you live where we live, you have plants up and down the river that you know make good money and that’s what I wanted to do. So I figured this would be a good way to get my foot in the door and get plant experience,” said Appleton.

EPIC students sponsored by companies:

  • 2018
    • Daikin - 2
    • Ascend Performance Materials - 3
    • Toray Composite Materials America - 2
    • GE Appliances - 1
  • 2019
    • Daikin - 3
    • BASF - 2
    • Ascend Performance Materials - 1
    • Toray Fluorofibers America - 1
    • Toray Composite Materials America - 1
    • IVXP - 1
    • Covanta - 1
Second-year EPIC student Allie Appleton leads other students in a safety walk through at Daikin on Wednesday. Second-year EPIC student Allie Appleton leads other students in a safety walk through at Daikin on Wednesday.

She and 10 other students are part of Calhoun Community College’s Excellence in Process Industrial Controls (EPIC) program.

It trains students to work as process technicians who work to take liquids and gases and turn them into products for both consumer and industrial uses.

The EPIC program started back in 2006 and relaunched in 2018. Terry Patterson, the coordinator for the advanced manufacturing programs at Calhoun, said the program was massively scaled back when the Great Recession hit in 2008.

“The program almost died, but fortunately Calhoun kept the training going, even though companies weren’t sponsoring employees,” said Patterson.

Eventually in 2018, the program was revived and re-branded as EPIC and was re-structured to model itself after the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) program, which launched first in Alabama at Calhoun.

Under the FAME model, students spend two days a week in the classroom and the rest of the week at facilities like Indorama Ventures, Ascend Performance Materials and Daikin.

Daikin’s Operational Training Supervisor Kerri Bracken said Daikin wasn’t involved in the first iteration of the EPIC program, but it jumped on board when they heard the program was coming back.

"For us, having that foundational, educational background was imperative for us going forward for the growth of the company,” said Bracken.

Patterson believes one of the important ways to grow the program is to expand the number of partner companies.

"Some of the companies do not need students each year. They may bring one student in every two years. So we want to make sure that we have enough companies there to support 20 students there full time,” said Patterson.

Right now there are 10 students who are sponsored by companies like Daikin in Decatur and BASF in Huntsville. Both Calhoun and the companies are working on ways to attract new and younger students into the processing business.

"We realize the importance of reaching students as far back as we can. We would love to do middle school activities as well as the high school activities,” said Bracken.

Some students told WAAY 31 that they even switched career paths to join the EPIC program.

“The opportunities [are] endless. You have so many choices you can go into after you finish your degree,” said student James Watkins.

“The EPIC program set me up with a job at Ascend and I'm on the path to making more money than I was in accounting in the first place and I'm happier and closer to home,” said classmate Logan Laney.

As for Appleton, the second-year was named EPIC student of the year and said the experience has been far more interesting than just learning in a school setting.

“Everyday you learn something new out here that you can take back to school with you. And it starts making so much more sense, as opposed to just reading something out of a textbook in a classroom,” said Appleton.

According to Calhoun, "Alabama ranks fourth in the nation for the highest concentration of chemical plants and system operators with an average salary of $67,930 with the 90th percentile in the $90,000 range not including overtime or benefits, which also comes in at fourth in the nation."

Applications for the 2020 cohort of EPIC students are open from now until March 15, 2020. You can apply by clicking here or click here for more information on the EPIC program.

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