Push on to bring incubator program to Walker County
by Briana Webster
Aug 25, 2013 | 3613 views | 0 0 comments | 62 62 recommendations | email to a friend | print
James McKenzie, at left, speaks with State Rep. Bill Roberts, Bevill State’s Penne Mott and the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County’s Linda Lewis. Daily Mountain Eagle - Briana Webster
James McKenzie, at left, speaks with State Rep. Bill Roberts, Bevill State’s Penne Mott and the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County’s Linda Lewis. Daily Mountain Eagle - Briana Webster
Before the sun rose over Walker County on a recent Thursday morning, a committee consisting of members from several area businesses and institutions traveled to Jackson County to view its school system’s incubator program. Making the trip were state Rep. Bill Roberts; Mark Keller of Fontaine Trailer Co.; Charlie Cook of Alabama Power Co.; David Knight of the Walker County Development Authority; Penne Mott, dean of Bevill State Community College’s Jasper campus; Jasper City Schools Superintendent Robert Sparkman; Debra Ellis, principal of the Walker County Center of Technology; Kim Davis, Career Technical Director of Jasper City Schools; Linda Lewis, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County; and Walker County Center of Technology instructors Mark Palmer and Haley Williams.

The committee formed a “partnership” in hopes of applying and qualifying for a special education grant that will help to fund a similar incubator program for Walker County.

“One of the initiatives of the chamber of commerce is workforce readiness, and in preparing for workforce readiness and preparing to meet the future needs of the business and industry in our area in Walker County, we have to have a prepared workforce,” Lewis said. “What we wanted to do at the chamber of commerce is pull all the parties together ... We have a wonderful opportunity to write one grant for everybody to work together in order to establish what we want to establish, which is one grant where we don’t have to piecemeal the grants out and have small pieces of the pie going out to various places.”

The main focus of the Walker County project is industrial maintenance, which consists of the following three components: welders, machinists and electricians. The program will be based within the Bevill Industrial Park at Bevill State’s Incubator. At this time, Bevill State is checking its inventory to see what is in the incubator so there will be no duplication of pieces of equipment.

The three-car caravan pulled in to the Earnest Pruett Center of Technology (EPCOT) parking lot. The center’s director, Shane Small, met members of the committee at the door before guiding them into a classroom for a Q&A session.

Ellis asked Small specifically about the electrical industrial maintenance housed at EPCOT, and Williams was eager to see the welding area of the campus.

“We serve about 200 kids in the morning, and they leave and then within about 30 minutes the afternoon buses are bringing in another 200,” Small said. “Our system is on a block schedule. There are seven high schools, plus Scottsboro, so eight (high schools).”

Roberts raised the question of how the programs at the tech center were promoted within the area. Small responded with an answer that piqued the interest of most members in the audience — a ninth-grade career fair held at the fairgrounds in Scottsboro. Area TV and radio stations help the center by advertising the event on the airwaves, and teachers from EPCOT are given time to visit with each high school in the district to recruit students. They host two open houses: one in the fall and one in the spring. Sometimes, Small and instructors are invited to speak and spread the word at local civic organization meetings. Even the local movie theater participates by running a 20-second clip that shows before every movie begins.

“That has a huge impact, because you have that audience of kids there, from middle school all the way up to that particular age group,” Small said. “We have a wind behind our sails right now in career tech, nationwide even, not just Alabama. We need to go with it and not let it die out.” 

EPCOT, Small, the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson County Economic Development Authority are in charge of and oversee the career fair every year. Everything at the fair is hands-on, meaning students can volunteer to work with 18-wheelers or operate bulldozers and backhoes. “It’s not a walk-through, look and get a piece of paper and brochure (event). The kids are actively engaged in activities,” Small said.

The Northeast Alabama Community College is another partner of EPCOT. Small said they do offer dual enrollment at the center. Two to three nights a week, the campus opens its welding and machine shops for students to earn more college credit, along with college students ranging from age 20 up to 55 years old. He also mentioned that a good majority of his students go on to pursue careers at Dynetics in Huntsville (an engineering, applied science, and information technology company), the Redstone Arsenal and other industrial or technical companies in Huntsville, Chattanooga and north Georgia.

In an effort to keep students at EPCOT, Small said they hire two academic teachers — one math and one science. He also said they use all of their at-risk funding to hire these two instructors; however, those funds may end soon.

“Federal funds have been cut. There is no more “high hopes” funding,” Small said. “At-risk, we’re picking up; we’re using our local money. That’s how much at-risk has been cut, and from what I’m hearing, this may be the last year for at-risk. ... I hope that never happens because it keeps kids here who want to be here.”

Not only is funding needed to keep the two academic teachers, but funding is also needed for all of the expensive equipment. Some of the machines at the center cost anywhere from $6,000 to $15,000 to $30,000 a piece.

Small continued to emphasize the importance of recruiting, not just the students but parents and teachers as well. State Representative Roberts made the statement that parents and educators, at one time, instilled the “college-or-bust” motto into their kids’ and students’ minds. There is now, however, a huge request for career-tech students who will be workforce ready.

Closing in on the Q&A session, Knight inquired about the center’s advisory committee, asking if they gave input as to what its needs are when looking for potential workers, to which Small said twice a year. But, surprisingly, one of the main concerns when searching for future employees is soft (communication) skills.

“These were top-notch people. The kids were coming out of high school with poor soft skills: communication, oral, written, manners, looking you in the eye when speaking,” Small said. “That’s what I was hearing. We’re going to stress that (soft skills) more in our student organizations.” 

After touring the facility and looking at each component— welding, machinery and electric— members of the committee were satisfied with what they saw.

“Well, I was very impressed with what they’re doing with their programs, their shops and with the level of equipment that they have,” Mott said. “And one thing that impressed me, probably the most above anything else, was the enthusiasm that their instructors exhibited. I mean those instructors were all over those programs. ... I think that’s really the foundation of the programs.” 

Davis added to Mott’s comment by saying, “I was impressed with the partnerships with industry and that their programs are industry-driven. They’re actually preparing students to have jobs in the industry in their area; so economically they’re preparing students to contribute. ... When you provide what industry needs, industry will provide what you need.” 

Overall, the majority of members thought it was an outstanding trip. The deadline to submit applications for the grant is Nov. 29, and Roberts would like the application submitted by the end of October.

“What I’m most proud of is the fact that we have both of our school systems and our junior college, Bevill State, working together to secure the future of our students. We will be able to start developing our high school students to be more job-ready, career-ready,” Roberts said. “We will be able to expose them to new equipment that’s being used in the industry now that they don’t currently have in our school systems. It will open up opportunities for higher-paying jobs for those students who elect to go through a technical career versus a four-year college degree.

“I’m adamant about this program. It’s just a really great thing to see.”