Tech Schools Play a Vital Role in Charlottes Economic Development

The regions community and technical colleges work hand-in-hand with manufacturers to meet their workforce training needs.

Tom Hogge, founder and CEO of Screwmatics of South Carolina Inc., proudly acknowledges that he is a product of the regions technical college system. So when his Pageland, S.C.-based contract machining business was seeking ISO 9000 quality certification in the mid-1990s, he turned to a local technical school for help.

Thanks to the training and guidance provided by instructors at Northeastern Technical College, Screwmatics obtained ISO certification, which was the springboard for Hogge to pursue customers in what was (at the time) a new market for Screwmatics: medical device manufacturing.

According to Hogge, branching out from the companys base of automotive customers into new marketsparticularly medical deviceshelped the company survive the post-9/11 downturn and add workers during the most recent recession. Today, the medical device field provides the biggest chunk of Screwmatics business, and the company has been making inroads into other areas such as power transmission and distribution and plumbing, Hogge says.

Were a little over 100 employees now, Hogge says. Ive been here 21 years now. Weve been on an incline of growth, and were still growing.

That growth would not have been possible without the support of the local technical college system, Hogge says. Northeastern, which is the closest school in the Charlotte, N.C., region to Screwmatics, not only was instrumental in helping the company obtain ISO certification but also has provided customized training to help upgrade the workers skills. And in a region where the textile industry has been the major source of employment, the college has helped bridge the skills gap for businesses such as Screwmatics, grooming job seekers to become skilled machinists.

There was a time maybe eight years ago when you just could not find reasonably talented people, Hogge says. And there still is a strong demand for training in specialty fields, especially computer-assisted and computer numerical-controlled machine tools. It just takes a higher level of mathematics, and the ability to use AutoCad and Cad/Cam systems to perform the tasks commonly required at Screwmatics.

Northeastern and Screwmatics work hand-in-hand to develop a curriculum for workforce development training programs that meet Screwmatics needs, Hogge says. He notes that the college has advertised in local newspapers seeking applicants for potential employment at Screwmatics. In one such program, the college sent instructors to the Screwmatics facility to train potential employees alongside Screwmatics workers.

And they supplied me with the potential employees grades, their testing prior to training and their results after their training, Hogge says. He notes that the students received instruction and were tested in areas such as mathematics, looking up and acquiring information, technical skills, hand-eye coordination, use of precision measuring instruments, communication skills and computer skills.

Northeasterns main campus is approximately 30 miles from Pageland, but several years ago the college opened a satellite office in Pageland. Hogge notes that he donated a CNC milling machine to the satellite branch and recommended an instructor, whom the college hired.

It has certainly been a godsend to me and several other companies, Hogge says of the satellite campus.

Hogge notes that Screwmatics relationship with Northeastern is ongoing, and a few of his workers are receiving training from the college in Six Sigma.

Unsung Heroes

Hogges experience is not unique, points out Ronnie Bryant, president and CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership. Bryant considers the 10 community and technical colleges in the Charlotte region unsung heroes in the areas economy.

Theyre very important to us and I dont think they get enough recognition of the role that they play, Bryant says. Not only are they providing customized training and skill upgrades for our existing companies, but theyre also helping us to meet the skill level needed for companies that were recruiting into the region.

Earlier this year, the Charlotte Regional Partnership made sure that the areas colleges got the recognition they deserve by honoring all 10 community and technical schools with its annual public-sector Jerry Award. The award is named after Jerry Richardson, owner and founder of the Carolina Panthers, and Jerry Orr, aviation director of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, both of whom were the first recipients of the award in 2007.

We couldnt narrow it down to just one college, Bryant says. Each has made a significant, ongoing impact on our regional economy and is essential to workforce development in the areas that it serves. The customized training that they offer businesses gives us a competitive advantage as we meet and talk with advisors and corporations that are making decisions about where to expand, consolidate or relocate their companies.

The schools in the 16-county Charlotte region are: Catawba Valley Community College, Central Piedmont Community College, Cleveland Community College, Gaston College, Mitchell Community College, Northeastern Technical College, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, South Piedmont Community College, Stanly Community College and York Technical College.

Hogge, who was trained at Florence-Darlington Technical College in Florence, S.C., in the early 1970s and later became a tool-and-die instructor there, certainly wouldnt argue with Bryants assessment that the local tech schools are unsung heroes. Without a local technical college working hand-in-hand with Screwmatics to keep his workers trained on the latest equipment and quality systems, Hogge concludes: I dont think Id be able to compete.

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