That is the opinion of staff at Wilkes Community College Ashe Campus, and the mission behind the new ITBC (Industrial Technology Boot Camp) program providing fundamental skills for competitive employment.
“One single sector of the Ashe County economy employs more people and pays higher wages than any other,” said Chris Robinson, dean of the Ashe Campus and Alleghany Center of Wilkes Community College and chairman of the Ashe Economic Development Commission. That sector is manufacturing, he said. “It traditionally ranks far higher in benefits than any other sector, as well. And unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe it’s a dying part of the local employment scene when, in fact, many of our local industries continue to grow.”
Robinson notes that over 25 percent of the Ashe County workforce is employed in manufacturing. “Until the recent nationwide economic downturn, we had seen continued slow but steady growth, particularly in high skill positions. We believe in the coming months, perhaps as soon as the fourth quarter of this year, we will see that growth return,” he said. “We are seeing increased competition in our industry community for people with high technology skills, people who can adapt to a dynamic workplace that is vastly different than what many people envision.”
And that is where ITBC comes in. The program that began in March and continues this weekend with another instructional session, is all about enhancing the workforce with some basic skills local industries need such as applied mathematics, blueprint reading, metrology, basic machining/CNC and electromechanical systems.
Endorsed by local industries including GE-Aviation, Leviton, Gates Corporation, and United Chemi-con, this 64-hour free program first focuses on applied mathematics to help students quickly build or rebuild these essential skills, then goes into the other fundamentals today’s industry is looking for.
Applied mathematics focuses on real world applications such as use of decimals, fractions, percents and order of operations. Blueprint reading introduces the student to the basic concepts using mechanical prints similar to those in local industry. Metrology is hands-on training in the most common measuring instruments such as tape measures and calipers. Basic machining/CNC introduces students to milling machines, lathes, computerized numerical controls (CNC) and other common machine shop equipment and tools. Electromechanical systems involves basic electrical, hydraulic/pneumatic, and control systems, Ohm’s Law, simple circuits, electrical schematics and other electromechanical components.
Students who complete this course will have the basic fundamental skills necessary to local industry today. Further enhancement of these skills can be obtained through industrial automation and engineering technology and other courses at WCC.
“These are basic fundamental skills to give a student an opportunity to get skills to be looked at more closely, to get a leg up over job applicants with none of these skills,” said Becky Greer, HRD director at the Ashe Campus. “The instruction is industry driven with industrial leaders offering input on the skills they need.”
The first sessions of ITBC were offered in March. There were 32 people originally signed up, and 26 completed the program, said Chris Bare, lead instructor/director for industry and trade services at Ashe Campus. Of those completing the course, 23 received the ITBC certification, he said. And of those who dropped out of the course, several did so because they got a job or already had a job. Of those taking the course and already working, about half were offered jobs someplace else. Of the 26 who completed the program, 18 took an entrance test for a particular company, 11 were successful, and 9 have been offered employment so far.
What all these statistics mean, Bare explains, is that while taking the course guarantees nothing, it shows that local industry is looking for particular skills and are hiring those who have those skills as well as a proven willingness to obtain training. “This program was developed with industry input,” he said. “They said what is needed.”
The demand is great for these skills, said Greer. “So we hope to encourage Ashe County people to take the course. It is a way to help them get their foot in the door, then they’re on their own initiative like everyone else with a probation period to learn the job.”
And this program is not just for the men. Women, said Bare, have been some of the best students.
“Industry is no longer a job, it’s a profession,” Robinson said. “It’s no longer dominated by men, by brawn. We stress the professionalism level, having not only skills but communication abilities. How you present yourself working in a team environment.”
“These skills are transferable anywhere,” Bare added. “We are working to get more companies to understand and endorse this. We will keep doing this as long as the demand is there. This is not a substitute for an associate’s degree, so we hope people who take this course will come back to earn their degree.”
A “stripped down” version of this basic fundamentals course is being offered to high school freshmen to expose them to careers in industrial engineering. High school graduates can take two years at WCC in Industrial Technology and Electrical Electronics with some supplemental courses to earn an associate’s degree in Applied Science and then transfer as a junior to select four-year colleges.
Through ITBC, not only do students learn basic industrial skills, they can learn “soft skills” that show initiative to industry such as work ethic, basic computer applications, creation of a resume and development of interviewing techniques. And attending these classes on a Saturday at this time of year shows industry employers that the student is willing to do what it takes to achieve, Bare said.
The next session of ITBC starts this Saturday, June 21, and meets on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in room 205 at the WCC Ashe Campus in West Jefferson (behind Ashe County High School). The classes are scheduled as follows:
Career Skills: 6/21, 6/28; Applied Mathematics: 7/12, 7/19, 7/26, 8/2; Blueprints, CNC, Machining and Metrology: 8/9, 8/16, 8/23, 9/6, 9/13. 9/20, 9/27, 10/4; Electromechanical: 10/11, 10/18.
Students can come to the first class this Saturday and register for the program. There is no cost for the program and no text. Students need only to bring pencils, erasers and a notebook. Due to the pace of the class and amount of material covered, students need to attend all classes. Missed classes must be documented and a plan developed for make-up sessions.
ITBC is offered at no cost to students thanks to a Project Skill-UP grant, explained Robinson. The grant is funded through the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission by way of the community college system. Additionally, the Ashe County Economic Development Department and Ashe County Job Development have provided additional support. “With these dollars, we are able to offer the program free of charge to students,” Robinson said. “Those who meet eligibility requirements may also receive some financial support to defray transportation costs.”
“The county believes in partnering with Wilkes Community College in a variety of ways, particularly on workforce development,” said Dr. Pat Mitchell, director of economic development for Ashe County. “In my department, I have some funding available for workforce development initiatives and we are happy to assist with training that benefits our citizens and our local industries. I believe that the partnerships between the county and WCC are beneficial to all concerned.”
Enrollment for the ITBC boot camp is limited so those who wish to participate in the program can call the college at 846-3900 or simply show up for the first class on Saturday.
“A big part of our role is to help our community build a skilled workforce,” said Robinson. “The boot camp allows us to help people start the process of enhancing their skills and makes them more competitive for jobs within the manufacturing sector here in Ashe County. The endorsement of industry ensures that we are focused on the right skill set needed. The message from the county through its support is that in a competitive market to keep industry, not only do you need financial incentives but also employment potential of the workforce. That is a key to recruiting and retaining industry.”