Texas Advanced Technology Center Project Progresses

Although a low graduation rate is a challenge for the center, officials say it provides 100 percent job placement in an economy driven by skilled labor.

by Chelsea Katz, McClatchy News Service / May 27, 2014

Skilled labor drives an economy, and Kilgore College and Kilgore Economic Development Corporation are still planning for the Advanced Technology Center to help provide that skill.

The Kilgore College basic welding program is established at the college, and Kilgore College President Bill Holda said it has become so successful that its students are hired out of the program before obtaining a degree or certificate. Sometimes, students are hired within six weeks of starting the course.

Although he said he would prefer students stay at KC for one or two years to practice and learn more disciplines within welding, he admitted it can be hard for students to turn down job offers that pay $11 per hour. One challenge to the program, he said, is that there is a low graduation rate – but there is 100 percent job placement.

“They don’t have, in my opinion, the kind of skill set that we would like for them to have,” he said about students who are hired almost immediately out of the college.

Even students who do graduate are not “totally work-ready” because they do not have experience with the specific business where they go to work.

“That’s been a problem for the workforce is that they’re needing some workers who get to be workplace ready more quickly,” he said.

At the initial request of local companies, KEDC Director Amanda Nobles approached Holda with the idea to provide additional training to supplement what students learn in the basic welding program at KC, Holda said.

“The way I see it, this is the companies outsourcing that on-the-job training,” Nobles said.

“Our goal is not to compete against the college welding program, nor to compete with other local businesses, but to really meet a need by aiding trained workforce,” Holda said.

A requirement to start in the Advanced Technology Center is either a degree or certificate in welding from KC or comparable experience in the field, Nobles said. To take part in the center, people will have to take a test that will be comparable to the exit test for the college’s basic welding program.

“It’s going to take people at a much higher skill level and take them to an even higher level, rather than take our entry level people and take them to a high level,” Holda said, “so I think it’s going to meet a really unique need in the workforce.”

KEDC will provide the building, KC Workforce Development will provide instructors – employees of record – and businesses will provide students and potentially additional instructors and inspectors for the products.

Nobles said she envisions retired welders as the key instructors for the lab area, but she said some businesses might want their own employee there.

“It’s a nice way to capture the experience of a generation that otherwise we’re going to lose,” Nobles said.

Companies can send employees one by one until all of the employees have the additional training necessary. Also, if companies do not want to send all of their employees, Holda said they can send the raw materials needed to create a product. With the raw materials, the skills and a completed model, he said the companies’ employees can learn how to work on one particular project.

“You can go into a store and you can buy a bicycle preassembled or you can do it yourself,” he said. “And so what you want to train people to do is to look at the finished product and be able to replicate that over and over and over.”

In the case of building a product from provided raw materials, Holda said the businesses would essentially pay an assembly fee.

The schedule of the center must be flexible, Nobles said, because some people might require two weeks of training, while others might need six months.

One of the goals for the Advanced Technology Center is that it cover different areas of work. The first focus area is welding, Nobles said because that is what was indicated by local business. Nobles agreed with Holda that fields like machining and manufacturing could be a focus area in the center’s future.

“The workplace will help drive it,” Holda said. Businesspeople representing the welding and diesel industry have expressed that the college could double the amount in the basic welding program and still not meet industry needs, he added.

“The whole goal is that if we have a much higher trained workforce, then the economic prosperity of this region is going to grow,” Holda said. From 1985 to 1995, he said the tax base fell from $4.3 billion to $1.6 billion due to cut backs in the oilfield. “Our base today is right at about $4 billion, so it’s climbed back. The majority of that has been here in the Kilgore EDC area.”

Currently, the program will include both on-hand training and experiments, in addition to some classroom work.

The center and its programs will not be for credit, but those who go through the program will be able to receive some kind of certification.

One of the issues Holda and Nobles have been trying to work through is finding a way to create a sustainable cash flow without having a high tuition. Then, Holda said they are looking to find a way to offer scholarships or to cover the tuition for those who enroll in the Advanced Technology Center and are not being kept on their company’s payroll.

A guaranteed cash flow will come from the college as it pays to lease the building from KEDC.

Small details are also still in the works, such as inspection, quality control on the products coming out of the center and product liability, Holda said.

Getting everything in line has been a complex process, Nobles said, because so many different entities are involved – college, government and business.

“It’s been like untying a very complicated knot that had very, very many ties in it,” Holda said.

The college and KEDC are almost ready to start ordering equipment, Holda said. The current goal is to have everything ready for instruction by late summer with an initial small group of businesses.

“We’ll get there,” Nobles said.

©2014 the Kilgore News Herald (Kilgore, Texas)