WCCS technical programs’ enrollment increases during recession

Published 9:29 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2009

With industries leaving town and jobs scarce, many Selma residents are returning to school. Wallace Community College Selma’s enrollment increased by 6 percent during the fall semester. Most of these new students enrolled in one of WCCS’s technical programs.

“Usually in tough economic times, people look to the technical side,” said Johnny Moss III, director of marketing and college relations at WCCS. “Because they can gain a trade quicker than a four-year degree.”

WCCS is literally tearing down walls to make room for its students. The school tore down a divider wall between two classrooms to make one large classroom for the electrical technology and industrial maintenance programs to share. In fact, students are wait-listed before entering these programs due to such high demand.

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“I had so many people I couldn’t fit them in here,” electrical technology instructor Eric Rogers said. “We knew there was going to be a lot of people looking for the training.”

While many students leave Selma to find jobs after completing the program, Rogers said, in time, industries would come to Selma due to a trained workforce. Students in these two programs learn everything from AC/DC electronics to robotics in the WCCS lab. Rogers said industries want a multi-skilled worker when money is tight.

“There’s a lot of technical jobs that want to come to this area, but they can’t because we don’t have a qualified applicant pool,” he said. “They don’t want five guys doing one job. They want one guy doing five jobs.”

WCCS is working to expand its short-term training programs for jobs in construction and maintenance. These eight- to 12-week programs would prepare students for the influx of jobs expected from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package.

The school currently offers a free seven-week program for people 18 and older called Ready to Work. The program teaches students technical skills that increase employment opportunities.

Selma residents are responding to WCCS’s efforts, too. The welding technology program has grown from 38 students to 90 students in only five years. Welding instructor Fredrick Ishman said the program places about 90 percent of its students into $22 an hour jobs after graduation.

“Our students are getting the opportunity to travel the world,” Ishman said.

However, that is also a problem for an economically depressed region. Chad Marshall, a graduate of WCCS’s welding technology program, recently worked in Waco, Texas, making $30 an hour plus $100 a day for expenses. He would be lucky to make half that in the Black Belt. Local economic officials are struggling to solve the problem.

“It’s a chicken and egg thing,” said Wayne Vardaman, executive director of the Economic Development Authority. “Nobody’s going to stay if they can’t live.”

Vardaman said the EDA is working on bringing new industry to Selma, despite a poor economy. Creating a trained workforce is a critical step, he said.

“You really can’t do anything without a trained workforce,” Vardaman said.