Dean Barber

Walking the Walk: How Vo-Tech Ed Saved a Town

In Economic Development, Places on December 15, 2013 at 6:45 am

GADSDEN, Ala. — Not long ago, an industrial “prospect” walked into the Alabama Technology Network Center on the campus at Gadsden State Community College.

This community in northeast Alabama had made the short list of finalist communities for a site search, but the manufacturing executive was still not so sure if his company’s workforce needs could be met here.

Upon entering the building, he immediately saw students programming robots through large windows at the first room to his right, “Hmmm, now that’s interesting,” he said.

At the very next room, still in the entrance foyer, the industry exec peered into another window to see a process control lab. He did a double take and walked inside. “These are the very same process controls that we use in our plants,” he said.

Bingo.

“All of a sudden, he wasn’t concerned any more as to our ability to meet his workforce needs,” said Mike McCain, executive director of the Gadsden-Etowah County Industrial Development Authority.

And this all took place just moments before the industry exec was to go into a meeting with local educators who had wanted to prove to him that the human resources were hand. At that point, he had all the proof he needed.

A Pipeline to Success

I do like the rather old-fashioned phrase of “human resources.” Some people may find the term a bit sterile, but I think it is aptly descriptive. And that is because people are a great resource for just about any business enterprise in any industry, especially so in today’s globalized, competitive environment.

In short, people can be your ace. In terms of site selection and/or location analysis, my primary consulting service to corporate clients, I not only look for an existing talent base – people who are more than capable of doing the work — but also a pipeline for future talent to sustain business operations.

I witnessed that future pipeline at work just across town from Gadsden State at the Etowah County Career Technical Center. There, more than 400 high school students from the county school system are enrolled to learn practical, technical, and useful skills  for when they are in the job market.

“My job is to provide opportunities,” said Mark Stancil, director of the center.

These Kids Are BEST

And let me tell you, I saw a motivated bunch of very bright kids, which gave me hope as to the future of our country.

In one classroom, I met a group of boys and girls who had built a six-axis robot in 42 days so that they could compete in a national competition. It was their first stab at entering the contest, sponsored by BEST Robotics Inc., a nonprofit organization with a mission of exciting students about engineering, science and technology.

Each fall, more than 850 middle and high schools and more than 18,000 students participate in the BEST competition. On a hallway wall facing the robotics classroom door is the proof in the pudding – eight plaques proclaiming “Best Rookie Team,” “First Place, Most Robust Robot,” “First Place, Team Exhibit, Design, and Construction Award,” “Second Place, Most Elegant Robot,” and on and on.

Inside the electronics technology classroom, I met equally motivated teachers and volunteers, industry people who wanted to give their time to these young people to show them the way.

Elbert Engle, the retired president of XYZ Control Inc., a company that specializes in automotive assembly design, spends much of his time at the center as a volunteer mentoring the students on technology.

“I love working with these young people,” he said. “We just hired a young draftsmen out of here and he has been with us for three or four weeks now and he’s about as good as anybody I have ever had.”

You’re Asking Them to What?

Apparently, they start them young here. Gadsden City Schools’ System has an Enrichment Program in which it holds a yearly “Invention Convention” in which it challenges, get this, third, fourth and fifth graders to invent and build some new device and then apply for a patent for their creations. Yes, you read that right.

Their work is then subsequently judged by members of The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County.  This coming spring will be the third year of the program, said Chamber President Heather New.

I don’t know about you, but when I was that age, about the only thing I could create, certainly no novel invention, was a somewhat effective spit-ball blowgun. Mind you, it was strictly used in self-defense.

Walking the Walk

But back to Gadsden and Etowah County. What I found most heartening here was just how closely the city and county school systems were working in close harmony with Gadsden State in being responsive to private sector employers. Both systems have private sector advisory boards comprised of local employers.

Most places talk the talk about such matters. But here I was seeing real evidence that they were walking the walk.

Gadsden, with its long tradition of precision metals manufacturing, has a history of pushing the envelope (and its students in the process) on how to better meet industry needs.

The city school system recently initiated a program that will allow certain high school students to take college-level engineering courses at Gadsden State. The dual-enrollment permits select high school students to take an introductory engineering course and a computer-assisted drafting course.

“It really sets those students up well to migrate easily into a lot of technical programs over there at Gadsden State as well as if they decide to go to a four year institution,” said David Asbury, director of technology with the city school system.

He Gets It

I had the pleasure of having lunch at Gadsden State with President William Blow; Tim Green, Dean of Technical Programs; and Gregg Bennett, director of the Alabama Technology Network Center on the GSCC campus.

I met them in the same room at ATN where our aforementioned manufacturing executive was supposed to get his convincing lesson. Also, by the time I met with these gentlemen, I didn’t need a whole lot of convincing by what I had seen already.

“There is an unusual level of cooperation between the city and the county and the college, which make the work here not so hard to do” said Dr. Blow.

“We profess to be a community college as we want to connect and be a part of the community. I think it is safe to say that we are as comprehensive in our offerings in tech ed as any community college in Alabama.

“We want to do everything we can to promote economic development in our community. … I never like to promise more than we can deliver because you have to live with that, but I can promise this – we can deliver a whole lot. If an industry tells us what it needs, we will do our dead level best to deliver. ”

Ladies and gentlemen, this is music to my ears — an academician who gets it.

The Origins and the Challenge

I was in Gadsden last week to consult with the Etowah County Commission regarding my site certification work. But I had been there many times before. When I first visited Gadsden in the late 1980s, I was a business reporter for The Birmingham News, and two of the city’s biggest employers – Goodyear and Gulf States Steel – were making noise of closing. Gadsden was at the brink.

Today, Goodyear remains and is expanding while Gulf States is gone. But the community, which could have gone in a very bad direction, is doing very well in terms of its manufacturing base. Many companies have come here since those dark days.

I believe the primary reason for Gadsden being “saved” was the development of what was called the Bevill Center for Advanced Manufacturing, subsequently to become the ATN center.

The genesis of that was in 1984 when then GSCC President Robert Howard came up with the idea of starting a center that would staffed by industrial technologists with factory experience as well as strong academic credentials.

The mission would be to provide applied engineering assistance and training in advanced manufacturing technologies to local existing industries and facilitate in the attraction of new industries. Howard’s concept was that this needed to be a joint venture between Gadsden State Community College, the city of Gadsden, and the University of Alabama.

Mike McCain was the assistant director and chief of staff at the Alabama Development Office in 1984. And the mayor of Gadsden sent him a copy of the proposal and asked, “What do you think about this?”

“I spent all night long reading it and said, ‘You got to do this. This is going to save Gadsden,’” said McCain.

The very next year, 1985, McCain would be recruited to Gadsden to start the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority.

The Bevill Center at GCSS would start operations in 1987 and would subsequently become one of five centers in Alabama with the inauguration of a Centers of Technical Excellence program in 1993.

Its namesake, the late Tom Bevill, a Democratic 15-term U.S. congressman from Alabama, told the Gadsden Times this at the time:

“We’re not gambling here, we know it works, we know it can be done.”

And so it was, to the benefit of students and industry alike. And it’s clear that this legacy of vocational education and technical training remains in force today in this community where manufacturing remains king.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.

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  1. Reblogged this on BioNOLA Business Blog and commented:
    An in place skilled workforce is one of the keys t successful industry recruitment. Communities should invest in people not companies.

  2. This give hope to me for the next generation. After speaking with teachers and students it became apparent that niether were up to the standards that we in place previously, but with this article it reassures that not every program is slipping.

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