A program that’s not even a reality yet is gaining statewide attention at Beddingfield High School.
Governor Pat McCrory along with city, county and state leaders descended on the school Friday morning to learn more about plans for the Wilson Academy of
McCrory listened as leaders from some of Wilson County’s manufacturing companies talked about the need for the school system to produce graduates who have the skills to fill available advanced manufacturing jobs.
“Ya’ll are ahead of the game,” McCrory told the crowd of around 50 people. McCrory is praising the WAAT project because it’s integrating the public schools and industries and breaking down the disconnect between commerce and education.
“Wilson gets it,” McCrory said. “You’re going to beat the competition and make my job easier.”
McCrory particularly likes that Wilson’s education leaders are going into industries to see first-hand the job skills graduates need and that industry leaders are coming into the schools and gaining a better understanding of the challenges our public schools face.
Lee Stephenson of Stephenson Millwork pointed out that 22 percent of the jobs in Wilson County are based in industries and manufacturing. And Wilson County has one of the highest wage rates in North Carolina. But the biggest concern business leaders are facing is the lack of a skilled workforce. Stephenson talked about how their company is making tremendous investments this year in new equipment. But the concern the management team at Stephenson Millworks is talking about is who will run this high-tech equipment. Stephenson is also sharing the news about the WAAT partnership with his colleagues in the millwork industry in other states. In fact, visitors from similar companies in six states were here in Wilson Friday discussing strategies for their companies and the millwork industry with Stephenson. Stephenson describes WAAT as a “unique approach” to solving the skilled labor problem.
WHAT IS WAAT?
WAAT is a five-year program that will be housed at Beddingfield. It’s one way school leaders hope to lure more students to the under utilized school and thereby increase overall student enrollment.
Students will take courses that will prepare them to become maintenance mechanics and to do other advanced manufacturing type work.
Local industry leaders are helping write the curriculum and industries are being asked to donate equipment so students will gain hands-on experience on the machinery they will be using and fixing in the future. The goal is to replicate a real manufacturing environment within the school.
Wilson County Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson talked about how the initial idea for WAAT came out of discussions with Rusty Stephens, president of Wilson Community College. The idea was to take the popular early college school model and modify it in such a way as to meet the need for a skilled workforce. Bulson reminded the group that North Carolina leads in the implementation of the early college model. And Wilson County Schools and WCC already have a successful early college in place so building on the existing foundation seems natural.
Initially, the two talked about looking into the need for a biotechnology school given the large number of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the county. But after talking with Jennifer Lantz, Wilson’s economic development director, and touring area industries, it was clear advanced manufacturing was the route to pursue.
Discussions led to the creation of an advisory board and school leaders have gained considerable input from the department and floor level leaders of area companies.
The plan, according to Bulson, is for WAAT to open to students in the fall of 2016. Doors should open with 50 students in the freshman class.
A total of $750,000 has been pledge
d for the project by the Golden LEAF Foundation in the form of a community assistance grant. But the school district must secure matching funds of $750,000.
“Equipment can be part of that match, but what Golden LEAF Foundation wants is to see we have the commitments it will take to make the program possible and sustainable,” Bulson said prior to Friday’s session. “We have not raised dollars from local businesses, but equipment donations have been coming in and some of them are very expensive.” Bulson said after Friday’s session he realizes opening WAAT in 2016 is an aggressive plan. Golden LEAF is giving the school system until July 1 to demonstrate the needed financial commitments have been secured.
Bulson will be having detailed discussions with the Wilson County Board of Education and Wilson County Commissioners about WAAT funding needs during budget season this spring. There’s also the question of whether state funding can be secured for the project.
McCrory explained that one of the ways the state can help get WAAT and other similar schools up and running is by making some funding policy shifts and adjusting funding formulas so that schools, particularly community colleges and schools in the state’s university system, are funded based on how many graduates are actually getting jobs.
State Senator Buck Newton, R-Wilson, agreed more money is needed and he said that’s something he and state Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, are working on.
McCrory wants to see curriculum at the university level and in community colleges targeted toward what commerce needs and schools must be able to adapt and change based on the market.
There’s also the issue that school systems and community colleges are pretty much forced to take a leap of faith that they will secure what’s kno
wn as Cooperative and Innovative Status when trying to build an early college program.
Bulson said Martin has introduced a bill that if passed would create some flexibility in the early college approval process. If the legislation is approved, school leaders would have a year between gaining C&I status and opening the new school. Such a move would bring the process in line with the overall budgeting process.
A large part of making WAAT work is the cooperation with the community college. Students completing WAAT will gain their high school diploma plus a two-year associate’s Applied Science degree from the community college.
Tracy Hottovy of BDRx in Wilson said students will do three-plus years at Beddingfield then complete their last two years at the community college. Hottovy explained the plan is to tie the two programs together so that they become one program.
BDRx opened in Wilson in 2010 representing over a $100 million investment in Wilson County. The company produces sterile pharmaceutical products. Hottovy talked about having employees with the skills needed to grow and maintain their business here is critical. And he hopes that by 2021 WAAT should be providing industries a “constant flow” of skilled workers.
Hottovy explained how WAAT students will learn OSHA safety regulations, they’ll gain critical decision making and problem solving skills. Their math and English courses will be tailored toward what industries need. Labs will reinforce what’s taught in the classroom and students will also have apprenticeships and internships available to them.
Hottovy said WAAT graduates will have a two to three year advantage over students coming out of a traditional school setting.
Other industry leaders speaking Friday included Michae
l Jones of 3C Store Fixtures and Michael Darr of Bridgestone Americas.
Jones talked about the need for workers to have innovative minds in order for their businesses to grow and survive.
Darr said their company has 15 openings right now for maintenance technicians. And these technicians have some of the highest paying jobs, some as high as $65,000 per year, in the tire manufacturing plant.
“They (students) don’t know that,” McCrory said in response to Darr’s comments about salaries. “We’re not telling students about the real market place.”
Wilson Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing program will be housed at the new Lee campus. In addition to WAAT students, the program will also be available to people in the community who want to secure an associate’s degree in Applied Engineering Technology.
College officials want to have the Applied Engineering Technology program up and running by August. But that will depend on how fast renovations move on the Lee campus. Plus, the college’s trustees are in the process of searching for a new president since Stephens announced his plans to retire later this year.
Bulson described the community college part of WAAT as “an important part of the pipeline.” He noted that there is a window of a few years before WAAT students will be ready to move into the community college part of the program.