Leaders discuss potential for new career center

The sales pitch – in a sense – was a call for investors.

State, county and local officials met March 15 to hear about a concept to jointly help education and economic development – one supported by two Barnwell 45 school board members, Chad Perry and Rhett Richardson.

The concept is a facility that would be located near the Barnwell airport and consist of a combined campus space for the Barnwell County Career Center and a technical college partner.

The idea behind it has several purposes:

• It creates new facilities for the career center, which is still operating in the same building since beginning in 1969. It lets them expand their curriculum too.

• The concept lets students transition from high school into a technical college environment, especially for those who aren’t going to a four-year college or just want to learn a trade.

• The facility provides job training and marketability to local people while being a major selling point for economic development by enticing corporations to locate factories here.

“Think of the great things it could do for our kids and the great things it could do for jobs,” said Perry during the meeting.

Perry and Richardson first introduced the idea for a joint career center/tech college in July 2015 during the first community Promise Zone meeting for Barnwell County.

“Mr. Perry voiced the idea of a state-of-the-art, modern career center and the effect it could have on our economy – an idea he had been pushing for some time – and it took hold,” said Barnwell 45 School Superintendent Jay Grissom. “The project we are here to discuss today has grown out of that idea. Mr. Perry and Dr. Richardson have strongly supported and pushed the idea to the forefront, so I asked them to join us in this session.”

Grissom moderated the meeting, which was attended by officials from the S.C. Technical College System, SouthernCarolina Regional Development Alliance and the Lowcountry Council of Governments.

A strategic action plan was recently released about the Promise Zone outlining its objectives and potential projects for the region. One near-term project mentioned in the report is a learning/vocation center combining vocational technical education for K-12 students and workforce training for adults.

The Promise Zone is a region recognized by the federal government last April for poor economies and persistent poverty. Because of their conditions, Promise Zones might receive priority in federal aid grants. The S.C. Promise Zone encompasses the counties of Barnwell, Allendale, Bamberg, Hampton, Colleton and Jasper, which is also the service area for SouthernCarolina Alliance, the regional economic development group overseeing Promise Zone matters.

In his presentation, Grissom noted the Barnwell County poverty rate (27 percent) was higher than the state rate (18 percent) and the county median ($33,639) and per capita incomes ($18,695) were below the state averages ($45,033 and $24,222, respectively). These figures are from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The combined free and reduced lunch rate for students in all three Barnwell County school districts is more than 70 percent, he said. For Barnwell 45 alone, the rate is 71 percent.

“Nothing in the presentation is meant to be offensive. I’m not trying to slam Barnwell County – just create empathy,” Grissom said.

Having a trained workforce locally available is a big attraction in industrial recruiting, said Danny Black, the SouthernCarolina president and CEO.

“The first question out of their mouths (from business prospects) is ‘Where are we going to get our technical laborers?’” said Black, who fielded questions with Grissom about the facility.

Black said the school district in Manning has a similar joint facility where vocational technical training is integrated with technical college system coursework.

Richardson said there were benefits to such an approach.

“The president of the technical college/career center in Manning stated that the average age of tech students was 27 years old. That means they worked about nine years at a low-paying job or were on public assistance for nine years before getting technical training. They found out that when the career center and technical college were housed together, the students went straight from high school to technical school and got high-paying jobs instead of wasting nine years of their life,” he said.

Later Black said he would like the area school districts to partner more with the region’s technical colleges – like Denmark Technical College – and the S.C. Technical College System about training for specific skills currently in demand by the advanced jobs that SouthernCarolina Alliance is pursuing.

Sen. Brad Hutto, who attended the meeting, asked who would own the proposed facility – the county, the school district or the S.C. Technical College System.

“That’s an issue that needs working out. We know there will be a governance issue,” Grissom said.

Hutto also asked how the current career center would combine its budget to the proposed tech college/career center hybrid.

“We would need to switch to a basic student cost so the money follows the student,” Grissom said.

At present the career center is owned by the three school districts with Barnwell 45 providing 50 percent of the support and Williston 29 and Blackville 19 each contributing 25 percent.

Black said the proposed facility helps keep the county’s young people here – its future tax base – because many are leaving for job opportunities or education elsewhere and not returning.

“If you keep them in the same building for four years and with the same instructors – they will stay here,” he said. “We want our young people to start their skill choices early in high school, and then advance into programs that further their opportunity to successfully get those high paying positions.”

Perry echoed Black’s view.

“I want every kid to go to college – if they want to – but at the very least, we need to graduate our kids out with a certificate in some field so they have a job,” Perry said.

When Boeing began its Charleston plant, the aircraft manufacturer originally said they would only hire from the Charleston area, but now they are looking farther afield for trained workers, which could entice more youth to leave the region, Black said.

“If we don’t start now,” he said of creating a local vocational facility, “We will start losing our people.”

During the meeting, Charles Boykin asked Black how much the facility might cost and what their timeline is for enacting the project. Boykin is the chief legal counsel for the S.C. Technical College System.

“I ask (these) questions to get focus, not to knock things off track,” he said, noting that his questions were ones that Dr. Jimmy Williamson, the S.C. Technical College System president, would most likely ask, as Boykin will report to him about this meeting.

Black said there are many corporate foundations to approach for equipment donations. He could not give a hard figure on the facility’s cost but said the next step would be drawing up plans for federal officials to gauge their support.

In terms of a timeline, Black said he would like some decision made before the end of the year as the upcoming elections could potentially change the political climate in 2017.

“I don’t want to leave any federal money on the table if it’s there for the taking. And Gov. Haley is on board,” Black said.

Perry said he thinks the time is right for this project.

“We will make this happen. It won’t fail. You’ve got a great man at the career center (Sam McKay, its director) and he’s doing well with limited resources – but what if we could give him something like this?” he said.

“Your passion is well played. We will go back and tell Dr. Williamson that they are passionate about it,” said Susan Pretulak, the vice president of economic development and workforce competitiveness for the S.C. Technical College System.

“I love the concept. It’s a great concept,” Pretulak said earlier in the meeting.

Later this month Grissom and Barnwell 45 Assistant Superintendent Crissie Stephens will accompany Black to Washington, D.C. to express the area’s needs to various politicians, including the concept for the facility.