Day 2 Itinerary – Lexington, KY; Harriman, TN; and Wytheville, VA
Stop 5 – Bluegrass Community and Technical College
Kentucky may be known as the bluegrass state, and the home of the Derby, but what stood out to me was the warm hospitality we experienced. Arriving at Blue Grass Community and Technical College we saw students lining the roadway, and faculty and staff gathered outside. The presidents of the 16 schools that make up the Kentucky Community and Technical College System were meeting in town, which allowed us the chance to hear about a wide variety of programs that are helping connect workers and employers across the state.
Corey Hicks, Danny Anderson, and Karen Meadows were three of those workers, and I’m glad Dr. Biden and I had the chance to meet them.
Corey is enrolled in the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 184 apprenticeship program in partnership with West Kentucky Community & Technical College. There he is learning the skills to install green plumbing systems (including low water, grey water, and solar hot water heaters), solar heating systems, geothermal heating/cooling systems, and high efficiency gas furnaces. He told us how the training has not only helped his current job performance but also enhanced his marketability.
Danny grew up in inner city Detroit and chose the military as his way out. After serving honorably for 6 years, and after finding auto jobs hard to come by in his home city, he used his GI Bill benefits to enroll in Hopkinsville Community College’s Nursing program, which has a strong partnership with Gateway Medical Center. He is now a registered nurse, and currently works in their emergency care department.
Karen is currently employed as a millwright at Ford’s Louisville Assembly Plant thanks to a joint labor management apprenticeship program offered in partnership with the UAW, Jefferson Community and Technical College and Ford Motor Company. In 2011, Ford Motor Company launched a $600 million retooling of its Fern Valley Road plant in Louisville. Creating the technologically advanced plant also created a need for intensive employee retraining.
During our discussion Karen challenged some of the ideas people have about modern apprenticeship programs saying, “People don’t expect a 50 year old apprentice, let alone a 50 year old woman. But everyone at Jefferson CC was amazing and I thank God for this opportunity.”
Elizabeth Keane, an executive at the Ford Plant, added that “Jefferson was flexible and innovative with this training. It enabled us to add two shifts, moving from 1,000 to nearly 4,500 employees.”
The ability of community colleges to quickly respond to the workforce needs of the local area is one of the reasons Dr. Biden and I both consider them to be at the heart of an America built to last.
Stop 6 – Roane State Community College
After nearly four hours on the road, we arrived in Harriman, Tennessee, just west of Knoxville and the home of Roane State Community College’s main campus. In 2010, Roane State received a $2.86 million federal grant to launch the Advanced Materials Training and Education Center (AMTEC) with the sole mission of providing no-cost, high-tech training to help workers get back on their feet through partnerships with local industry and economic development groups.
These partnerships are already paying off. After a local grocery store distribution center announced it would soon be closing, Eagle Bend Manufacturing, a growing automotive parts supplier and AMTEC partner, stepped in and committed to hiring laid-off workers IF they completed a special seven-week AMTEC training program. SECO Tools, another partner donated machine shop equipment to help train the laid-off workers. Together, they are helping the community weather the lay-offs, and move forward with a stronger workforce.
At Roane State, executive director of Workforce, Economic Development & Technology programs Dr. Lou Rabinowitz also told us about a truly incredible program coming out of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory just a few miles away. Scientists there are working on more cost-effective ways to produce carbon fiber, a material which offers the strength of steel at a fraction of the weight. Through a partnership with AMTEC, local employers are now setting up shop in a commercial center on the Oak Ridge campus to train workers how to produce this low-cost carbon fiber and maintain the production machinery. A number of local automotive manufacturers are already interested in looking at how low-cost carbon fiber can be used in cars to reduce weight and meet new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.
As I told the crowd at the end of the visit, the people of Harriman are living proof that this works, and it’s time to let the secret out about community colleges.
Stop 7 – Wytheville Community College
Soon, we were back on the bus and headed to Wytheville, Virgina… nearly five hours away. Wytheville is a small community with a big heart in rural Southwestern Virginia. As in many towns and cities, the college serves as the community hub for workforce training and connections. The establishment of the Workforce Development Center at the college has been instrumental in developing the workforce for the nearby Gatorade Blue Ridge plant. The workforce center created a curriculum for line technicians and helped implement several “best practices” for the Gatorade plant. In addition, the center provided support to Gatorade’s pre-employment testing and recruitment programs.
In Wytheville we met Carolyn Dankowski, who is the plant manager of the Blue Ridge Gatorade facility. At 950,000 square feet, the Blue Ridge facility is the largest food and beverage site in the world to achieve LEED Gold status. Carolyn credits the flexibility and willingness of Wytheville Community College to quickly create training programs for employees as one of the main reasons the plant has been so successful.
The plant is now a big part of the community, and as we found out this night so is WCC.