Ah, yes. “The Skills Gap”. No doubt, you’ve heard the phrase thrown about at political debates, discussed among leaders in education, and perhaps you’ve even seen Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe champion the need for skilled workers. So what exactly is it and how are communities and institutions of higher education addressing it? Forbes defines a skills gap as “a gap between what employers want or need their employees to be able to do, and what those employees can actually do when they walk into work.”
Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC), located in Burke County, is confident that their Mechatronics program will produce the new workforce local industry needs. Not only this, but the hope is that this new highly-skilled generation will entice new industry to the area. Burke County, nestled in the rolling foothills of North Carolina, has experienced a large drop in workforce – with residents both losing employment or leaving elsewhere to find jobs in other economies across the state. According to one of the College’s success stories, David Morgan, a Burke County resident, worked for a local furniture company for over 18 years until 2014 when his position was moved overseas. He immediately began looking for a similar employment opportunity but soon discovered that it was difficult to find an equivalent position that had equivalent pay. That is when he decided to go back school. Morgan was able to receive additional educational training through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program and decided to enroll in WPCC’s Industrial Systems Technology program.
Because information technologies have changed so rapidly in the last few decades, employers experience difficulty finding workers who can use these technologies competently. Mechatronics, a field closely related to Industrial Systems Technology, is a relatively new field that combines mechanical, electrical, computer, and other related engineering fields. It is a growing and highly desirable area of study particularly to high-tech employers including: metal component manufacturing, industrial equipment, electrical products, chemical processing, furniture, and textiles. By partnering with dozens of local employers to learn about the skills needed, Burke County and WPCC are creating a new incubator that will improve employment rates, grow business and the local economy.
In our partnership with WPCC, LaBella’s architects and engineers wanted to design a facility that would support the community effort to recruit and train the next generation of industry workers and bolster the Burke County economy. The exterior design is centered around the idea of enticing others inward by showcasing the robots and equipment in a glass “storefront.” Situated between Breeden and Rostan Halls, the 7,000 SF facility features two labs, two classrooms, and a conference room. Because these spaces needed to provide an educational environment to simulate real-life scenarios, classroom and lab connectivity, flexibility, and adaptability were important. Almost every table, chair, and piece of equipment is movable to support a diverse set of configurations and to allow for students to move freely from each work station. The new facility opened this March with an open-house for local students to test-out the robotics and equipment.