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Big money bet on job initiative / July 24, 2014
Students will soon be able to train for advanced manufacturing careers at the new Center of Excellence in South Boston — but first comes the task of creating the program at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center.

One of three Centers of Excellence (CoEs) established this year by the Virginia Tobacco Commission, the South Boston center aspires to expand the ranks of middle-skill workers — welders, precision machinists, and industrial maintenance mechanics, in particular — who are projected to be in growing demand as industries make the shift to advanced manufacturing. The Tobacco Commission in May earmarked $2 million for centers in South Boston and Martinsville; a third center will serve Southwest Virginia, at a site yet to be determined.

The South Boston CoE will build on existing programs at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), giving the area a leg up on other locations that have been tapped by the Tobacco Commission for the initiative, said John Cannon, a leaf panel director and SVHEC board member. Although the higher ed center has long provided job training programs for students and workers, the CoE initiative “takes us to another level,” he said.

“ When you come out of community college, you have a certain skill level. When you come out of this, you’re going to have a written certification that you can do [specialized] procedures for advanced manufacturers,” said Cannon.

He predicted the CoE will boost Halifax County’s ongoing efforts to attract new manufacturers: “It’s one of the greatest things that has happened to the area …. We’re really a sweet spot that will finally bring people in here, that will bring [industry recruitment] to fruition. I feel really good about it,” said Cannon, who also serves as chairman of the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority.

The idea for the Centers of Excellence was hatched in a 2012 report by the Boston Consulting Group, which predicted the need for 6,000 new manufacturing jobs by 2017 in the “tobacco footprint” of southern and southwestern Virginia. However, the consulting group also cautioned that companies may be unable to find enough workers to fill these mid-skill jobs, jeopardizing the regions’ hopes of revitalizing their manufacturing economies.

Mid-skill jobs are generally considered positions that require more than a high school degree, but less than four years of college. The Centers of Excellence are envisioned as a step above community college, although local institutions such as Danville Community College and Southside Virginia Community College are key partners.

Dr. Betty Adams, SVHEC executive director and leader of the South Boston CoE initiative, notes that DCC and SVCC “are critical to expanding the middle-skill pipeline” by providing entry-level training in a variety of fields, including welding, also one of the CoE’s specialties.

Trainees who acquire these basic skills — either directly as community college students, or through high school dual enrollment programs — can then advance to the mid-skill level by enrolling at the South Boston CoE, she adds.

“Under the CoE model, community college programs in the three priority areas [welding, industrial maintenance and precision machining] will feed these entry-level students into CoEs where short-term specialty training and hands-on experience will elevate them to middle-skill level,” Adams wrote in a report on the centers entitled “Reinventing the Wheel?”

A key, she added, is preparing students for “advanced and specialty-level credentials required of middle-skill workers in the three priority areas.” The credentials are awarded by nationally-recognized industry trade associations and standard-setters — the American Welding Society, the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, and Siemens, Inc. — and provide “quantifiable results of workforce readiness.

“These quantifiable state wide numbers will take Virginia from 16th in the nation to the top 5, leaping over North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee,” Dr. Adams wrote in her report.

Once established, the Center of Excellence in South Boston will certify up to 70 students with industry-standard credentials each year. Initially, though, the number will be much less, said Tim Phohl, acting director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission. “They’re going to have to work up to that,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Tobacco Commission committee that is overseeing the effort met to discuss spending priorities for the $2 million that has been earmarked for each center. In South Boston, much of the initial investment is expected to go towards equipment; however, Adams said she also anticipates hiring three new instructors to spearhead welding, machining and industrial maintenance instruction.

“The person who is in charge of that program will define the quality of the program,” she said. “It makes a difference when you have someone who is a champion in charge.

“That’s what we’re going to do.”

Officials offered somewhat different perspectives on how quickly the South Boston CoE can get up and running. “We’re trying to move quickly on it,” said Phohl, expressing the goal of enrolling students this year at the SVHEC. “The faster they [students] are in the program, the faster they can get certified and get ready for work.”

However, Adams said it would take more time to develop the program. Enrolling students by fall is “unlikely,” she said.

She noted that the equipment needed will be “extremely expensive” but said the investment will be well worth the money.

“As a culture, we tend to look down on what we think of as blue collar jobs, but the reality is these are jobs that are open and available and they’re good-paying jobs,” she said, adding, “Community college programs are really focused on providing entry-level skilled workers. What we will be doing at the CoE is focusing on mid-level workers.

“In reality, we are going to have a lot of [current] workers” enroll to raise their level of skills. “We’re already hearing from companies that want to send us students.”

Dr. Adams said this week that SVHEC officials are revising the proposed CoE budget to fit into the Tobacco Commission’s $2 million investment, although some decisions have been made quickly to purchase equipment “in order to take advantage of good pricing negotiated by Bruce Sobczak.” Sobczak is workforce development director for the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, created on the campus of Rolls Royce’s new jet engine components plant in Prince William County.

While the South Boston center is likely to purchase equipment tailored to its specific needs, the leaders of the CoE initiative are also exploring ways to share with common costs such equipment, instructor training, curriculum and marketing, said Dr. Adams.

She added that she and SVHEC chief financial officer Patty Nelson will be talking further this week with Phohl, the Tobacco Commission’s director, on items that will be needed to get the program started in time for the fall semester.

Phohl acknowledged the need to move quickly to get the initiative off the ground. A major challenge is identifying equipment purchases and curriculum offerings that align with the job training needs of existing employers in the region. Although some money will go towards big-ticket expenditures, a substantial portion of the budget will be spent on more prosaic needs: “Hand tools is a big issue,” said Phohl.

“It’s the next level up from community college in terms of skills enhancement,” said Cannon.

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