With a passion for problem-solving and a heart for teaching, project manager Ronny Gillespie is living in his “sweet spot.” By day, Gillespie manages construction projects for Walker & Whiteside, a leading design-build electrical contractor in Greenville, S.C. After hours, he “pays it forward” as an instructor for the rigorous, four-year Upstate South Carolina Electrical Apprenticeship Program.
The Upstate Electrical Apprenticeship Program is a partnership among six regional electrical contractors – CarolinaPower, Eldeco, Hayes & Lunsford, HR Allen, Walker & Whiteside, and Watson Electrical. Registered with the S.C. Department of Labor, the program is administered by the Associated Builders and Contractors of the Carolinas (ABC Carolinas) with classes held at Greenville Technical College.
The program utilizes Electrical curriculum developed by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER). For the 2019-2020 session, there are 35 students in various stages of the curriculum – the biggest total enrollment to date. Gillespie has taught all Electrical levels but is currently teaching Level 1 coursework.
Gillespie has a total of 30 years in the electrical field, the past eight with Walker & Whiteside. He has spent most of his career in construction working on small to medium-sized commercial projects with an emphasis on the retail and restaurant markets. Gillespie holds his Master Electrician’s license in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. He also has a low voltage license in Georgia as well as a Lightning Protection license.
Gillespie’s real-world experience, combined with a personal desire to share his knowledge with the next generation of electricians, makes him an exceptional instructor, says CarolinaPower President Chris Moore, who has chaired the Upstate Electrical Apprenticeship Committee since its inception 10 years ago.
“When Ronny came on board as an instructor six years ago, he injected a boost of energy into the program, enhancing NCCER’s solid curriculum with his leadership and wealth of experience. He clearly invests a lot of time with the students. Ronny goes above and beyond classroom instruction… for him, it’s all about helping them develop their careers,” said Moore.
Earlier this school year, Gillespie was nominated for Adjunct Teacher of the Year at Greenville Tech and last month he received an Excellence Award from the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD).
GroundBreak Carolinas recently chatted with Gillespie about the twists and turns of his career path and why he finds teaching so rewarding.
How did a graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University with an education degree end up working in electrical construction?
Like many people, I started down one path and ended up on another. When I graduated from college, my plan was to teach high school business and coach baseball. Throughout college I had worked summers doing electrical work and I really liked it. After teaching some, I took a job as an electrical helper and went on to work for several companies. Over time, I took the tests, got licensed, and worked my way up from there. Prior to joining Walker & Whiteside, I owned and operated my own small electrical contracting business about 18 years.
You have plenty on your plate with your “day job.” Why did you want to become an instructor for the Upstate Electrical Apprenticeship Program?
I find it extremely rewarding to share knowledge and have people learn something. I’ve always had a desire to teach… it’s a gift and I’m passionate about it. That’s one reason I’ve been teaching Sunday School classes each week for many years. As far as being an Apprenticeship instructor, I do it because it benefits the company and the construction industry. I want to show the students that there is something other than a four-year degree that can make them successful. In reality, I probably learn more from them than they do from me.
What’s most rewarding for you? What’s most rewarding for students?
Seeing the results of your work. Immediate results. When you walk in a room, turn on a switch and the lights work… you know it’s because you wired them. There’s pride in being able to say that you wired a building. There’s so much variety with this career… no two jobs are the same… the tasks vary… every day is different.
What courses do you teach?
I am currently teaching NCCER Electrical Level 1 Curriculum to 23 individuals, male and female, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-40s. I taught Level 4 the last few years.
Do you stay engaged with the students beyond the classroom?
For me, teaching is about building relationships. I truly want the students to succeed. Because I also teach the Journeyman prep course given at Greenville Tech, I am able to keep in contact with some of them. It’s very exciting when former students reaches out to let me know they passed their test and got their license.
How has the student profile changed over the past five years?
I’ve noticed an influx of people who are looking for a career change. There’s both a young lady and a gentleman who were in manufacturing and decided to change professions. There is also a lady who is presently in the healthcare field. I’ve also observed that the classes are getting younger. Six years ago, the classes were filled mostly with employees who were already working in this field. Now the vast majority is from the younger generation… only a few are experienced. That’s a good thing for the future of the construction workforce.
Are you optimistic about the future of the trade?
Yes! For 2019-2020, the Upstate Electrical Apprenticeship Program is experiencing its biggest total enrollment to date. And as a past judge for SkillsUSA statewide competitions among high schoolers in South Carolina, I’ve seen many bright young people who are eager to learn and grow. The sky’s the limit for them.
How are you (collectively) getting the word out about this “Other Four-year Degree?”
The program’s six partner companies – for whom the electrical apprentices are employed – are working together and individually to raise awareness about this “best kept secret” by visiting area high schools, attending community career fairs, and more. While there are some high schools in other parts of the state that offer electrical classes in their vocational programs, there are no in-school programs of this type in the Upstate. Greenville Tech is also very helpful in letting students, parents and others know about the program.
More about the Upstate Electrical Apprenticeship Program
Apprentices work full-time during the day, attending classes one evening per week at Greenville Tech. The comprehensive program teaches the skills for both construction and maintenance electricians. Participants begin with NCCER Core Curriculum – Introductory Craft Skills, followed by NCCER Electrical Level I to IV classes. Successful completers receive a certificate from Greenville Tech, a nationally recognized credential from NCCER, and a U.S. Department of Labor Apprentice Diploma.
The Upstate Electrical Apprenticeship Program has graduated 20 electricians since its inception in 2008. There were only three electrical contractors involved in the early years of the program – CarolinaPower, Hayes & Lunsford, and Walker & Whiteside. As the program gained momentum in recent years, Watson Electrical, Eldeco and HR Allen came on board.
To learn more about the Upstate Electrical Apprenticeship Program, contact Greenville Technical College’s Larry Roberson, Program Coordinator at Larry.Roberson@gvltec.edu or 864.250.8276.