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Upstate tech colleges working to develop skilled labor force

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According to recent data compiled from the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, 11.35% of businesses planning to expand their workforce in the immediate future are most concerned with finding workers with the necessary skills to fill new jobs.

In its business contact poll, employers across the Southeast were most concerned about a skilled workforce over source restraint and lower operating costs when it came to potential employment increases.

During a panel discussion at the 2016 South Carolina Manufacturing Conference and Expo, Lewis Gossett, president and CEO of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, and Cheryl Stanton, executive director of the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce suggested that, while the labor shortage is not a new problem, education was a way to address it.

Tim Hardee, president of the S.C. Technical College System, said tech schools across the state have worked feverishly to try to address the needs of employers for skilled labor. But, he said there isn’t a “snap-your-fingers” solution to the issue. Colleges have worked to improve marketing job skills like mechatronics to high school students, educating parents on the benefits of manufacturing and more collaboration between schools on programs.

“I think the dynamic has changed for technical schools because businesses are not conscious of what zip code a potential employee comes from,” Hardee said. “They don’t care where they live, but whether they are skilled and can do the job.”

We talked to representatives of the four Upstate technical colleges — Greenville Tech, Piedmont Tech, Spartanburg Community College and Tri-County Tech to see what they were doing in terms of bridging the gaps in the Upstate labor force.

Greenville Technical College

For Jermaine Whirl, the issue with workforce development is simple … it’s a case of ‘not enough.’

Even with successful ties to BMW, Michelin, General Electric and other companies through technical scholars programs, the problem at Greenville Tech is keeping the students long enough to complete a degree.

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Which, in this case, can be good.

“If a welder gets two semesters of education, a company will pull them and put them to work immediately,” Whirl, Greenville Tech’s director of economic development, said. “They can make $15 to $20 an hour and who could blame them for doing that?

“It is a good problem to have because we know the student came here to learn the trade, they accomplished that goal and we try to work with the companies to get those students back at night to finish.”

The mechatronics program at Greenville Tech is one of the largest, sporting an enrollment of over 200 students. There were 111 graduates of the school’s welding program in 2016 and Whirl said companies are still ringing his phone off the hook on a regular basis looking for skilled manufacturing and industrial workers.

“I get calls every week from companies looked for 10-15 people,” Whirl said. “They don’t even advertise, they make a call and those students will be gone because they are getting paid.”

It is programs like the Tech Scholars program that have yielded strong results for Greenville Tech. Whirl said 80% of technical students are placed in jobs in a general field, but that goes up to 90% when it is placement in a related field to the student’s training.

He said the scholars program is one way a student can obtain necessary skills for programs like mechatronics and learn the culture of a particular employer like BMW or GE. Under the terms of the program, the company pays for the student’s education and the student also works for the company during their education and, more often than not, are offered full-time jobs with the company upon graduation.

The ‘not enough’ comes into play with the scholars program because companies have limited personnel to dedicate to the program and Whirl said colleges are limited because funding doesn’t necessarily allow for bringing in additional faculty to help with training. Right now most programs are bringing in 20-30 students every two years and expanding that would be a way to help with the scarcity of skilled labor.

“We have people who know the programs and they would need to send more reps to create more cohorts,” Whirl said. “It would have to be an increase of their time to bring more reps to the colleges so that it can be grown.”

Spartanburg Community College

Little said she recognizes there is a gap and the technical colleges have made strides to reduce it. But, like Whirl, the problem comes down to ‘not enough.’

“Our programs are growing by leaps and bounds, but the needs of what employees are looking for create the gap,” Little said. “When you have a company looking for 200 employees, you may not have that many students in a program.”

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An example of the growth is in mechatronics where Spartanburg Community College has over 270 students enrolled. The college recently expanded the program to its Cherokee and Union campuses.

And, like Greenville Tech, SCC has experienced success with its own Tech Scholar program. SCC has partnered with 16 businesses like BMW, BASF, Michelin, Sealed Air and Steeger USA to create specific scholar programs.

Little said BMW started with just six scholars at SCC five years ago and that number has risen to 53. The company now has more than 100 tech scholars at SCC, Greenville Tech and Tri-County Tech, according to Little.

“The growth of the programs have been drastic,” Little said. “These programs are getting grants and are growing as quickly as we can, but that growth isn’t at the same pace the number of employers needing employees”

Mike Forrester, director of economic development at SCC, said the college’s Center for Business & Entrepreneurial Development is another piece of the puzzle SCC uses to help businesses with its labor force.

“If a business is expanding or coming in, we work with them to advertise their jobs, take their applications, screen those applications and we do pre-employment training where the company officials get to see the candidate on paper and that process has significantly reduced the turnover rate for companies.” Forrester said.

Piedmont Technical College

Apprenticeship Carolina came into being a decade ago, and since that time it has served 17,893 apprentices in 851 apprenticeship programs, according to its website. And even though it is not a new program, Rusty Denning, associate vice president of economic development and continuing education at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, is quick to point to it as a strong and successful program at his school.

“The majority of what we’ve been doing is with the apprenticeship program initiative because we have the money,” Denning said.

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Denning is referring to the $5 million federal grant awarded in 2015 to the S.C. Technical College System to expand apprenticeships in the state. Also, in January, Piedmont Tech was one of four technical colleges sharing $400,000 in additional grants from the State Workforce Development Board to implement more apprenticeship opportunities focused on priority populations such as youths, individuals with disabilities and those with background issues.

“Each program is customizable for the company,” Denning said.

Piedmont Tech partners with 38 companies on apprenticeships, including some with multiple programs. There are 249 students involved across 49 apprenticeship programs. Some of the most recent programs include: mechatronics with ZF Transmissions and Prysmian Group; CNC with Alupress, and supervisory training with SPF North America and Velux America.

“Companies will call about needing someone trained in this or that. They’ll also come visit with students – we work with companies all of the time,” Denning said.

Denning is seeing more companies visiting campus to talk to students. He said the students may not be selected for a scholarship program with a company, but might receive tuition reimbursement or some other arrangement with a company.

“It’s an ideal situation for the students,” he said.

According to information Denning provided, companies who apply for and receive Apprenticeship Carolina grant funds may utilize up to $12,500 per location to pay for education provided by their local technical college. The grant amount per apprentice should not exceed $2,500. Educational opportunities may include either credit courses towards a degree and/or courses offered by continuing education divisions at each college.

Tri-County Technical College

A search for manufacturing jobs in a 50-mile radius of Greenville returns more than 400 open positions on the job search website Careerbuilder.com, everything from a CNC machine operator to an assembly line worker to manufacturing supervisor.

Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton has developed programs in concert with manufacturers to provide the skilled workforce that can fill those jobs. The school recently announced a new partnership with Michelin called the Michelin Manufacturing Scholar program. The new program adds to the partnership that has been in place called the Michelin Technical Scholars program.

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“Tri-County Technical College and Michelin are long-term partners in industry training and workforce development initiatives,” according to a statement from Tri-County Tech.

The Michelin Technical Scholars program trains students for highly-technical jobs. The technical scholars go through two-year associate degree programs mechatronics, industrial electronics, and general engineering technology. The new one-semester program aims to prepare new hires for manufacturing professional jobs.

“Work-based learning creates a pipeline to fill the needs of manufacturers,” said Cheryl Garrison, coordinator of job placement at Tri-County Tech.

Garrison said that over the last calendar year approximately 180 students were placed into jobs. And, of the companies who reported earnings to Tri-County Tech, 59 students at 10 companies had earned more than $1 million combined from July 2015 to July 2016.

“Companies are getting qualified, ready to work employees – employees who are ready to go on day one,” she said.

Garrison said she has seen the success of the manufacturing training programs spread into other fields of study.

“Companies are now looking beyond mechatronics and industrial technicians; they are also looking at meeting accounting and other office needs,” she said. “It’s growing in neat ways for all of the students because there are needs in so many areas of the workforce – from pharmacy tech to law enforcement.”

Additional workforce development programs at Tri County Tech include:

  • BMW Tech Scholars Program
  • The Duke Energy Tech Co-op
  • The BEST program, BorgWarner
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Hydropower Cooperative Training Program
  • Schneider Electric Co-op Program
     

So … now what should be done?

Little said the important thing now is to keep educating high school students, administrators and even potential business partners of what technical colleges have to offer.

“There has to be an education of employers to show what they can do to have a presence on campus,” Little said. “Employers have to look at the long-term, even though they’re immediate needs are so great and we try to collaborate with them to see what they can do to entice more applicants.”

“Educating the public on what the opportunities are is another important thing. You can walk out of here with a fulltime job, making $45,000 with a two-year degree and no debt … when I think about that, it is amazing.”

The challenge in overcoming the ‘not enough’ issue Upstate tech colleges face may come down to education. But, not just education in the classroom, but educating a community, Hardee said.

He said the state system holds counselor institutes where it invites high school guidance counselors to Columbia to discuss various programs offered by the 16 technical colleges across the state. Hardee said the intent is to bring high school students into programs that will yield a higher paying job when they are 20.

Increasing public-private partnerships may be a way tech colleges can overcome the funding challenges of expanding tech programs. Hardee said the state’s tech schools have attempted to remain competitive by keeping tuition low, but tuition funds 60% to 70% of operating costs at those schools.

“It is difficult to attract good faculty and staff, maintain equipment and facilities and try to keep tuition low,” Hardee said.

He said communities and businesses have to begin realizing that area tech colleges are investments.

“People have to understand that for South Carolina to be successful, the 16 community colleges have to continue to grow and increase the pipeline of students taking advantage of what we have to offer,” Hardee said.

Story written by Matthew Clark and Teresa Cutlip.

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