"Wiregrass Technical College is a major asset to the entire South Georgia region. Their graduates provide a talent pool that is invaluable to companies doing business and expanding in our region."
Wiregrass Technical College in South Georgia has been preparing students for the workforce since 1963. One of the key factors that make technical schools a great choice is customized curriculum that prepares students for highly-skilled positions that exist within the community. Wiregrass is no exception - they've been widely recognized for their contributions to workforce development, with more than 5,970 graduates in the last 4 years and a 98% job placement rate.
One cutting-edge, growing program of study is mechatronics. Joshua Whittington, is the mechatronics instructor at Wiregrass, describes this in-demand career option as the combination of everything that makes the manufacturing industry function - including electrical, mechanical, controls, and computer science. Not only does Josh teach the courses in the program - he's also coached the National Mechatronics Champion team since 2017, leading his team to compete at the WorldSkills Competition in Russia this summer.
Joe Sumner, Associate Vice President of Program Development for Wiregrass, explains more about how the program is impacting workforce. "It's a combination of different engineering and industrial concepts. No longer do companies need to hire an electrical technician, or a mechanical technician; now they're looking to hire a well-rounded, multi-craft technician. And to meet that need, what we've done is crafted a customized program. Mechatronics here versus mechatronics in metro Atlanta, versus mechatronics in Savannah, it's going to be a little different," says Mr. Sumner. "Rural Georgia must establish an educated, skilled, and equipped workforce to encourage more industry to move here.”
The machinery and equipment that students learn on at Wiregrass aren't just for show. "The things you see around you are real-world components; these are not training components. These were selected based on industry input. We go out and knock on doors of local facilities. We ask them to show us around, and we invite them in here, and we ask them what they're using on their floor, what buttons are they pushing, what robots are being used in their facility. That's what we want in our building because then the students can learn the equipment, and they're familiar with the company," Mr. Sumner explains.
The mechatronics program was implemented in January of 2019 at the post-secondary level. They also have high school programs for mechatronics. "We've realized that you've got to get an earlier start for career exploration and getting a head start on college," explains Wiregrass President Dr. Tina Anderson. The evidence supports that idea - the program has grown exponentially since it's inception. "We currently have a combined 110 high schoolers enrolled in the program from Coffee High School, Wiregrass Career Academy, Irwin County High School, Atkinson County High School, and Valdosta High School. There are also eight post-secondary students enrolled," adds Mr. Sumner. "Without a doubt, the program is growing and the next generation of workforce is eagerly preparing to meet the business and industry needs in our community."
Joe Sumner himself was the first mechatronics professor at the school with Joshua Whittington being one of his graduates. "We're out in front of what's next," Joe adds. "The next big wave of innovation is coming through technology companies. There's no longer a person with a clipboard walking around checking parts. There are lasers that are scanning it, feeding that data in, and the machine is making corrections mid-production. There's no longer someone manually putting in purchase orders. All of that is being driven through industry 4.0, and that's the next vacancy that companies are starting to fill. A lot of people worry that technology like this will eliminate jobs, but we are focused on preparing the workforce for these higher skilled jobs that will adapt to the new standards."
Dr. Anderson agrees. "Our mission is to make sure we can produce those skilled employees, so our workforce can sustain itself. We have to constantly ask ourselves 'What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What are we not doing at all?' With technology moving as fast as it does, we have to stay agile in education."
Wiregrass isn't just focusing on high-tech skills - they're paying attention to the rest of the package, too. They've developed a training program called Wiregrass Ready. When working with local industries to plan curriculum and learn more about training requirements, they realized there was a gap: demand for soft skills training that goes along with the more technical training. Wiregrass Ready is fully customizable, based on the community or the company's needs. The program can be as long or as short as is needed and covers entry-level skills from handling phone calls with vendors, to financial literacy, to responding to feedback from management.
"We cover 11 different counties where we are allowed to actively go and knock on doors. But if any company or development authority or chamber comes to us and asks how they can do something like Wiregrass Ready, we're more than happy to coordinate with the local community college in that area and help. We'd love to see these programs grow statewide and cover whatever the need might be," Mr. Sumner explains. "We knock on a lot of doors. I'm not far from getting on a corner with a spinning sign. If it gets folks in here and ends with them getting a great job, then that's what we'll do."
Dr. Tina Anderson laughs. "Just wait until after summer semester. It's hot out there."
With world-class educators and a sharp eye on what's next, Wiregrass Technical College is filling a big piece of Georgia's talent pipeline.