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Heath: Lot riding on academy

Friday, January 4, 2013

From Bulletin staff reports

A lot is riding on the success of the New College Institute’s Academy for Engineering Technology, so it must proceed carefully, the institute’s board learned Thursday.

The academy was launched in August through a partnership with Virginia State University. It intends to prepare high school and college students for higher education programs in engineering and technology or to seek entry-level jobs with manufacturers using advanced technology.

“If we don’t get this right, we will fail” in efforts to lure technology-driven companies to the area, said board Vice Chairman Mark Heath, who is president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.

Considering that students have a vast amount of career options they can pursue, the number of area pupils interested in engineering and technology could be limited, NCI officials indicated.

“It’s not for everybody,” said Associate Director/Chief Academic Officer Leanna Blevins. “Engineering course work is not easy.”

Thirty-three high school students are enrolled in the academy, but Patrick Henry Community College students will be encouraged to join, Blevins said.

Board member Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, asked if local industries are looking to recruit any of the current students.

Commonwealth Laminating often is mentioned when officials cite examples of local companies using advanced manufacturing technology. Commonwealth Laminating plans to expand and will need workers who know how to use the technology “sooner rather than later,” Blevins said.

All of the students now enrolled will continue in the academy during the spring semester, said NCI Executive Director William Wampler.

Therefore, “it is a bit early to determine” if the academy’s students will be interested in going to work in local industries, Blevins said.

Considering the area has lost so much industry, the idea of working in manufacturing could turn off some people, officials acknowledged.

Parents, who often are involved in helping their children choose careers, are “scared of the word ‘manufacturing,’” and so is the community, Blevins said.

They are scared so much, she surmised, that if the institute had named the program the Academy for Advanced Manufacturing, nobody likely would have enrolled.

Advanced manufacturing jobs generally pay high salaries. When students realize they can attend the academy and learn skills they need to get a job paying, for example, $45,000 a year by the time they are 20 years of age, “that’s going to be the selling point,” Blevins said.

Another selling point, however, may be that academy students can advance in their learning as far as they want to before they enter the workforce. For instance, Blevins noted, the curriculum is being designed so students can earn certificates, two-year associate degrees or four-year bachelor’s degrees.

They can stop at any of those points and go to work, and then pursue a higher credential as they have time and develop the interest, she and Wampler said.

Most students now enrolled in the academy have indicated they intend to pursue degrees, she added.

NCI’s goal is for a total of at least 75 high school and PHCC students to enroll in the academy each year, with an equal number graduating annually with either a certificate or degree, Blevins said.

Funded by the state and The Harvest Foundation, NCI offers local access to high-level courses needed to earn degrees from universities across Virginia.

Twelve degree programs in various fields, from business administration and education to social work and criminal justice, are being provided at the institute through partner universities.

NCI and PHCC have a goal of jointly advising 200 students annually at the college so they can enter the institute’s degree programs without any problems, Wampler said.


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