Southern Union is educating for the next industrial revolution

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By Katie Jackson

East Central Alabama and surrounding areas are on the cusp of the next industrial revolution, but to fully realize the benefits of that revolution, education is needed – both the immediate education of skilled employees for the burgeoning economic sector, the education of future employees about this revolution’s career potential and the education of the community about the diverse manufacturing community right here in our backyard.
That is just what Southern Union State Community College is providing through its Technical Education and Workforce Development Division.
“Lee County is a hub for advanced manufacturing,” said Dr. Darin Baldwin, dean of the Division, who noted that according to recent statistics released by local economic development officials the Opelika-Auburn area has added more than 7,200 jobs in the last 10 years, and the demand for employees in high skilled technical areas is growing rapidly, and in some cases outpacing supply.
“To remain competitive and meet the current demand, we need an educated, highly skilled, dedicated workforce,” Baldwin said. SUSCC is already helping meet that demand through its technical degree and certificate programs, but there’s room for growth.
Currently, some 300 students are enrolled in SUSCC’s eight technical degree program areas— industrial electronics and robotics, manufacturing technology, welding, HVAC, automotive, engineering and design. But that enrollment is far from meeting employers’ needs. “We could triple our graduation rate because of the increased demand for highly skilled technical savvy workers throughout the state,” Baldwin said.
However, according to Baldwin, to attract more people to these careers, the old ideas about jobs in manufacturing must be dispelled. Manufacturing work, he said, has been perceived as low-skilled, low paying and with little room for career advancement. But that’s no longer the case.
“Today’s advanced manufacturing environment is a high-tech, high-skilled, high-wage occupation with room for advancement,” Baldwin said. “Industries are using the latest technologies such as 3D printing and computer-controlled machinery and robotics, and they prize innovative ideas, safety, the environment, international trade and the customer.”
What’s more, these jobs are lucrative. “The average manufacturing worker in the U.S. earned $77,060, including pay and benefits, in 2011,” he said.
Familiarizing the public with these exceptional career opportunities and the true face of today’s progressive manufacturing environment is vital to meeting workforce needs. Studies show that the more familiar parents and educators are with today’s high-tech manufacturing industries, the more likely they are to steer students and workers toward these careers.
“Individuals who have worked in industry and possess an increased familiarity with U.S. manufacturing are twice as likely to encourage young people to pursue manufacturing careers,” Baldwin said.
In collaboration with manufacturing companies in the Auburn-Opelika area, Baldwin and his faculty members are increasing that broader understanding and appreciation of manufacturing-related jobs through career events held at local high schools and community colleges.
Manufacturing companies in the Auburn and Opelika area recognize the need to start talking to students and work with staff at local schools and community colleges to get the right message across. Manufacturing and skilled trades are a viable career option for many students and offer a rewarding career opportunity at the end of a two-year associate’s degree.
On Oct. 6, as part of National Manufacturing Day, manufacturers in Auburn and Opelika opened their doors to high school seniors and chaperones from 13 different local high schools for High School Senior Day with industry to showcase their facilities and career opportunities from throughout the region. This event was cosponsored by Southern Union’s Technical Division, Auburn University’s Alabama Technical Assistance Center and the City of Opelika and the City of Auburn.
That education-industry partnership can also be seen on SUSCC’s Opelika campus at its Center for Integrated Manufacturing, a 74,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building that opened in 2015 and was developed with industry input and support.
The center, which provides students access to dedicated faculty and the latest technologies, brings all of the Division’s degree programs together under one roof. There, students specialize in one of the eight degree disciplines, but are also exposed to the breadth of technical skills needed in today’s diverse and cutting-edge manufacturing industries.
“Envision this facility like a wagon wheel with engineering and design (which is the first step in any project) in the hub,” said Baldwin. Lab areas for the remaining disciplines are located in spaces around this hub allowing for cross-curricular projects through which students can collaborate just as they would in the “real world.”
“This environment has created a renewed culture for SUSCC’s Technical Education and Workforce Development Division,” said Baldwin. “Faculty members and students no longer operate in silos with each discipline located in a different building.”
To facilitate this interdisciplinary approach, the faculty developed TEAM, an acronym for Technical Education Associates Meet, and also adopted a mission focus they call PRIDE—Passion, Responsibility, Improvement, Determination and Excel—an acronym they literally wear on the sleeves of their SUSCC shirts.
With TEAM and PRIDE as their guides, faculty work together to guide students through the two-year associate’s degree programs as well as help them obtain professional certifications. These short, stackable certificate programs are integral to the degree program classes, but can also be taken as separate modules, offered as both daytime and nighttime classes, for non-degree workers who want to enhance their on-the-job expertise.
Students who earn associate’s degrees are also prepared to articulate into four-year degree programs at Point University in West Point, Ga., and, Baldwin hopes, soon with other universities in the area.
In addition, SUSCC, in partnership with the East Alabama Industrial Consortium, just launched a Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship Registered Apprenticeship program, which gives industry partners an active role in training their maintenance personnel and developing a local labor pool of qualified applicants for their workforce needs.
SUSCC’s commitment to educating students for career opportunities in manufacturing is deeply appreciated by industry representatives and students alike.
“I have lived in many areas of the country that had competent community colleges,” said Jerry Chestnut, plant manager for Donghee Alabama LLC in Auburn, a fabricated plate work manufacturer. “Southern Union surpasses each of them in the area of facilities, instructors and staff. Southern Union not only supports area industry, but also offers many career paths for the people of the Auburn/Opelika area.”
“As a community, we need to ensure that area residents know and understand all that Southern Union offers and the benefits of having such a great institution of learning in their own backyard,” he added. “I truly believe that SUSCC graduates are prepared for this world.”
Baldwin and his faculty hope to expand this education process on all levels so the potential for jobs and economic development of this industrial revolution can be fully realized. To learn more about SUSCC’s Technical Education and Workforce Development Division, contact SUSCC’s Technical Education Career Coach Eric Sewell at 745-6437, ext. 5492, or esewell@suscc.edu.

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