Building a fuel cell work force in S.C.

The chicken-and-egg cliche was repeated often Tuesday as those who are banking on the hydrogen fuel cell industry in South Carolina discussed work-force development.

The big question is: What does the state need first? Workers trained in hydrogen fuel cell technology so companies will come to South Carolina? Or, companies in South Carolina offering hydrogen fuel cell jobs so students will have a reason to study it?

It’s tricky to encourage students to study fuel cells when existing jobs in the field are few, said Clint Chandler, chairman of the engineering technology department at Midlands Technical College.

“We can’t make promises,” Chandler said. “We’re gambling here.”

But the state needs workers qualified to work in the field when those jobs finally arrive, he said.

“The predictions tell us in a relatively short time there is going to be a boom,” Chandler said. “But when the boom comes, people in the work force are going to have to step up or people will come from other places to take the jobs.”

The issue was discussed Tuesday during the second day of the National Hydrogen Association’s conference in Columbia.

Midlands Tech is working fuel cell technology into its curriculum while teaching students practical skills that will get them a job already available in South Carolina.

The college includes courses in its degree programs for students studying to be electricians or heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians, Chandler said.

Aiken Technical College is using a similar strategy, said Susan Winsor, the college president.

The other challenge is predicting which type of fuel cell is going to be used in the future, said Tom Ollila, business development manager for Dantherm Power.

“Fuel cell is a generic term,” he said. “There’s five or six types of fuel cells.”

His company is developing fuel cells for the telecom industry. If it is successful, Dantherm would be interested in building a manufacturing plant in South Carolina because it already has one plant in Spartanburg, he said.

For now, South Carolina is taking the right steps in training workers so the state will be ready once the technology takes off, he said.

“The main thing is having a work force skilled in the basic things,” he said.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.