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Still pushing hard after 50 years

Author: Andy Brack

Source: Statehouse Report

September 4, 2014

State's technical education system trains more with less money

Imagine if South Carolina had not had its much-touted series of state technical colleges over the last 50 years.

“We would be the dry bone in the valley without any skills,”said retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, who served as governor from 1959 to 1963 and is considered the father of the state’s technical education system.

Today as the 16 campuses of the system are accommodating more students and training them for jobs at places like BMW, Boeing and Continental Tire, there’s less money with state funding dollars barely above what was appropriated more than 20 years ago.

“I shudder to think what our state would be like without a thriving technical college system,” said Dr. Ben Dillard, president of Florence-Darlington Technical College. “We are so important to economic development.

“Our technical colleges train over 60 percent of the middle-skilled technicians employed.  I believe that without our colleges the manufacturing economy in South Carolina would collapse.”

Dr. Mary Thornley, head of Trident Technical College in the Charleston area, said the technical training system has been a game-changer for South Carolina workers because it attracts new employers.

“I can’t imagine our state without technical colleges. We would be less able to compete in the global economy without them,” she said. “Whenever training is required to meet a need in a community, the technical colleges step up and deliver. They are a critical component of the state’s economic development strategy. Many of our well-respected employers probably would not have located here if not for the technical college system.”

Robbie Barnett, an associate vice president at the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, said South Carolina likely now would not be one of the fastest-growing economies in the Southeast without the state’s technical training system.

“Our citizens continue to depend on them to make higher education accessible and affordable, and businesses continue to look to them for their workforce training,” he said.

Doing more with less

In all of the public colleges and universities in the state, more than half are undergraduates in colleges in the state’s technical education system. In the fall of 2012, the system’s full-time equivalency enrollment was 62,456 students. That’s almost double the 33,581 FTE students from 20 years earlier.

During that same span, state funding rose from $111.6 million in 1993 to a peak of $171.3 million in 2000, only to drop to $97.5 million during the Great Recession. Funding in the 2014-15 budget is $123.7 million. If the level of peak funding were adjusted for inflation, current funding would be about $237 million, according to a federal inflation calculator.

Bottom line: The state’s tech school system today is training twice as many students with half of the money it had more than a decade ago.

Meeting the mission

Technical training offers businesses a way to get skilled workers trained in the way that they want them trained.

“Industry is touchy, touchy, touchy about learning skills their way,” Hollings said.

He admits he brought the technical education to South Carolina after witnessing a training program in Ohio in the late 1950s. At the time, the state was moving away from an agrarian economy. Textiles, the state’s manufacturing backbone, was encountering foreign threats as well as peaks and valleys of work. For the state to grow, Hollings thought it had to be able to offer businesses something different and compelling.

What he came up with was a 100-day pledge -- a promise to a company that if it moved to the Palmetto State, he would guarantee the company would have a facility and workers to run it within 100 days.Technical training was the key part of that promise.

“He was taking a lot of risk saying, ‘We’ll give you a building and workers within a 100 days.’” said Dr. Jimmie Williamson, appointed this year to head of the S.C.Technical College System. “He was able to deliver.”

In the years since, the state has been able to attract brand names like BMW and Boeing by being nimble enough to provide the skilled training they needed. Boeing, for example, has trained 2,800 workers through Trident Tech in a few short years, according to the college’s David Hansen.

“We are the engine that has helped this economy rebound because we stayed strong,” Williamson said, adding that the system’s various training programs allowed workers to get new specialized skills to be able to rejoin the workforce.

“We have not been given the credit for the recovery that we maybe should have. We are an important factor in that whole equation. For people to have the skills that they need, we’ve always been there.”

Years ahead offer opportunities, challenges

Across the state, many tech school campuses are gearing up for 50-year celebrations. Greenville Tech already marked the anniversary two years ago; the state system did last year; Trident Tech is honoring its roots throughout this year.

In the years ahead, technical colleges plan to keep up with the developing needs of industry.

“We are in lock step with what’s happening in terms of economic development,” Williamson said. “As the technical college system goes, so goes the state. Who would have thought 20 years ago that we would have been an aeronautics and automobile hub?

“Whatever is identified as an emerging need, we are going to try to fill that void and fill that niche.”

S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said the technical college system was a remarkable asset for the state.

“In recruiting a company to the state, the crucial factors are sites,infrastructure and workforce,” he said. “Through programs like ready SC,we’re able to show a company that our state will not only help them find the right site, but we’ll also work with them to screen, hire and train their workforce. readySC is a key tool in our economic toolkit, because the technical system can create a customized training program for the company.”

But there are challenges ahead, such as maintaining instructional equipment and support.

“You can’t train somebody on an old World War II lathe and put them in an industry with computer-controlled equipment,” he said. “We are constantly upgrading and have a need to upgrade our equipment, software and curriculum.”

Meanwhile, Dillard pointed to the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology (SiMT), a specialized facility that supports industry from around the region.

“Our facility is a huge draw for new industries considering moving to the area or the state, and more than one economic development professional has attributed their success in landing a new industry to access to the SiMT,” he said.

“It also serves as a recruitment tool for Florence-Darlington Technical College. Dozens of high school students, teachers and counselors visit annually.”

In the Charleston area, Trident Tech is moving full speed ahead to accommodate Boeing. It is working on designing a $79 million Aeronautical Training Center that will house a projected 2,100 students in the 215,000-square-foot building. About half of the money has been secured or pledge so far.

  • You can learn a lot more about the history of South Carolina’s technical colleges through  “Transforming South Carolina’s Destiny: S.C. Technical College System’s First 50 Years.” The 2013 book is available in full online at this link.

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