Community Colleges: Connecting Workers to Local Industry

Community colleges are not only an economical place for students to take their core classes before heading off to complete a bachelor's degree elsewhere, but they also play an important role in workforce development.

Workforce development doesn't just mean providing a certain set of degree or certification programs so that graduates can hopefully land a job in their chosen field, though. It means working with local industry--sometimes even anticipating industry trends--to train students specifically for the jobs that need to be filled.

As South Carolina has transitioned from the textile manufacturing jobs that were a mainstay up until recent years to technical and automotive manufacturing jobs that have  become big business here in the Upstate, community colleges are a big part of providing a ready supply of workers. With facilities such as the Center for Advanced Technology in Union County (which you can read about here) and programs such as Apprenticeship Carolina (read about it here), South Carolina technical colleges are actively pursuing ways to link employers and workers.

TriCounty Technical College doesn't just offer welding and HVAC degree programs like practically every other technical college in the country. They have built a 43,000-square-foot Industrial Technology Center to house those programs, and it was built specifically to mimic a real-world industrial setting, including OSHA compliance. Paul Phelps, who serves as welding program coordinator at TriCounty, received the A. Wade Martin Innovator of the Year award for his role in shaping the design of the facility. In fact, McLaughlin Body Company chose Anderson for its facility because of Phelps and the Technology Center.

Additionally, says Rebecca Eidson, Public Relations and Communication Director at TriCounty, "A new stackable credentials program model has been developed to address the growing need for students to be able to earn credentials that can be "stacked" toward an associate degree, giving them the flexibility to exit the College with marketable skills and re-enroll later to complete additional credentials. Stackable models have been developed for Welding and CNC. The project also creates stronger connectivity between credit and non-credit programs."

Both Greenville Technical College and Spartanburg Community College have Technical Scholar programs, which pair employers with students while they are still in school, giving them specific training for jobs that exist in local companies. Students apply for the program through the Career Development office at the college, and then fill out the employer application online. Once accepted, the student maintains a full-time school schedule, working 20 hours per week with the employer in exchange for tuition assistance.

The benefits of this program are threefold: The employers have access to a pool of employees who are already trained, and they are able to grow and develop their workforce from a population of motivated students; the students, in addition to receiving significant tuition assistance, are able to prepare for a career and move seamlessly into a job upon graduation; and the college benefits by staying current with industry demands and changing needs, and faculty work with employers to create current and relevant curriculum.

So far, seven local companies have participated in Spartanburg Community College's Technical Scholars program, with BMW being the largest, and Sealed Air will take on three students this fall. Greenville Technical College also places students with BMW, as well as Michelin and GE.

Greenville Technical College, in addition to its Technical Scholars program, is opening the Center for Manufacturing Innovation in partnership with Clemson University. According to a joint press release from the college and CU-ICAR, "the vision is for collaboration between a leading research university, an innovative technical college, and advanced manufacturers, creating a center that enhances the development and implementation of advanced manufacturing technologies."

New technology doesn't always have to do with cars and electronics--sometimes it is finding new ways to advance old practices such as farming, as with Piedmont Technical College's Diversified Agriculture program, developed in collaboration with regional agribusinesses. The basic certificate provides students with technical knowledge in animal science, farm maintenance, welding, soil conditions, and environmental and natural issues related to the industry.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina.