Dec. 15, 2014 12:56 AM

Lafayette’s community college has a proactive approach to meeting specific workforce needs of local business and industry.

Change has been the word of the day at South Louisiana Community College over the past couple of years, and it’s not over — not by a long shot.

“It’s crazy,” says Christine Payton, communications and marketing director for the school. “But in a good, good way.”

In 2012, SLCC merged with the Acadiana Technical College, bringing together academic and technical programs, as well as the Early College Academy, which offers students the chance to attend college during their high school years. At the same time, an evolution was taking place as an intense focus on tailoring programs to the community’s workforce needs developed.

“We’re finally settling into who we are now,” Payton says. “We’re getting the right programs in place; we’re answering the demand in the workforce.”

To do that, business and industry has to be involved.

“All of our programs, even the liberal arts, have advisory boards made up of community leaders, business leaders,” Payton says. “They are telling us what is

Rendering courtesy Architects Southwest needed out there. We’re engaging businesses that will need graduates; they help us redesign our curriculum by telling us what we need to offer.”

That requires one of the advantages that a community college/technical college model has over traditional universities: agility.

Willie Smith, vice chancellor of economic and workforce development, spends a lot of time asking people in business and industry what kind of workers they are seeking — and then revamping and developing programs to produce custom training, industry-based certifications or degree programs to produce graduates with those qualifications.

“Industry tells us what they need,” Smith says. “We revise our curriculum to reflect those specific skills.”

For instance, meetings with oil and gas leaders indicated that there was a need for operation and production workers.

“With their help, we’ve developed a program that allows a student, within a year, to have the skills to start with a salary of $40,000 to $60,000,” Smith says. “Those are good jobs.”

But meeting industry needs means moving quickly, and the higher education structure is not known for its speed. So what does SLCC do? It begins training immediately, while programs are awaiting approval from the state Board of Regents and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Students can receive credit for “prior learning” once the programs are approved, meaning they can get started as quickly as possible, and no time is lost, Smith explains.

Clearly, there’s no grass growing on SLCC.

Micheal Glisson, vice chancellor of academic affairs, admits that things are moving quickly these days, but sees it as the school “moving to our correct place in the community.”

“The word ‘community’ in our name — that’s very important to us,” Glisson says. With locations in all of Acadiana’s eight parishes, that “community” can mean a lot of things. “We want to be more connected to the community life; we want to be a resource for our communities,” he says.

What’s next? A lot. Construction recently began on a new, 36,000-square-foot campus in St. Martinville, where all programming will be under one roof. Payton says practical nursing, welding, automotive repair and general education will be taught at the new campus. “It will have lab space for each of the technical programs along with classroom space for the general ed courses,” she says. “It will also include meeting room space.”

This $9.2 million new campus is part of a $173.7 million bond package for construction projects within Louisiana’s Community and Technical Colleges that was authorized by the state in 2007.

The Early College Academy will be expanding in Lafayette on Bertrand Drive and into other parishes. As technology evolves, so will the way instruction is delivered, with more video conferencing and similar offerings. New programs are starting, in health care and software development.

Planning is happening now on a new Health and Sciences building on Bertrand, between the Ted Ardoin Building and the street, with state-of-the-art labs, more room for the new RN program and faculty space.

“If things all come together, sometime early next year we might get a shovel in the ground,” Glisson says. The building will have all the “gee whiz bang stuff,” Glisson adds, including multi-media instructional spaces.

There are also plans for an auditorium that will allow a larger portion of the SLCC faculty to meet together. The first RN students began classes this fall, and the software development students will have skills they can use to get a job as early as the spring. There’s a new aviation coatings program underway, as well as a high school oil and gas program that gives students skills they can use to get a job right out of high school.

“We need to be able to react quickly,” Glisson says. “There are long-term workforce needs, and short-term workforce needs. This new building will help Dr. Smith do his job better, allow him to react more quickly.”

Some workforce needs must be addressed very rapidly, and some can wait a little longer.

“Some things, we need them now,” Glisson says. But there has to be a focus on sustainability for the worker, he adds.

And despite all the talk about the people running Acadiana’s businesses, the focus at SLCC is on the student.

“They’re not here because it’s the thing to do, or because their parents want them to be here,” Payton says. “They’re here for a purpose. They’re working toward something, or they’ve been displaced or found themselves widowed.”

Classes and program cohorts are smaller, with a lower instructor/student ratio than that of a university, she adds.

“These instructors develop relationships with their students. If a student doesn’t show up, the instructor is calling to check on them,” Payton continues. The welding instructor keeps up with his students, visiting them on their new jobsites or helping them find jobs.

By the way, if you have a master’s degree Glisson wants to talk to you.

“Contact us if you’re interested in teaching,” he says. “We’re always looking for instructors.”

Walking through the halls, there are high-tech IT classes, nursing classes, automotive classes, welding classes and academic classes — all happening under the same roof.

“It is amazing what goes on in this building,” Payton says.

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