The countdown is on for the first-ever South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center to welcome students later this year at Trident Technical College’s main campus in North Charleston.
The Palmetto State’s third largest higher education institution and largest of its 16 technical colleges—with four campuses across the tri-county—Trident Tech is planning to open the 218,000-square-foot, three-floor facility this fall semester, with an official grand opening soon after, according to school officials.
The project has been about six years in the making, with funding stemming from a number of sources. Charleston County gave $18 million and City of North Charleston contributed $1 million. Trident Tech provided $8 million in cash for land costs and grants were also awarded from the Economic Development Administration.
Another $6 million came from the Anita Zucker family to help sustain the building once opened, according to school officials. Charleston businesswoman and philanthropist, Zucker is chair and CEO of the InterTech Group, Inc. and co-owner of the S.C. Stingrays hockey league.
After a significant bulk of funding was realized, Trident Tech leaders approached Columbia lawmakers for the project’s largest financial request.
“We went to the Legislature with funding and said, ‘We need a state asset to do aerospace training because of Boeing and all their suppliers,’” said Bob Walker, Trident’s vice president for continuing education and economic development.
According to Meg Howle, the school’s vice president for advancement, the Legislature granted nearly $50 million, an unprecedented amount ever handed to a technical college for one single building.
“We sold this to the Legislature as a statewide asset,” she said.
While the initial goal was to construct a site focused solely on aerospace training and programs, advanced manufacturing quickly became a top priority after both Volvo Cars Inc. and Mercedes-Benz announced in 2015 they were locating to the area. Volvo opened its North American headquarters in Ridgeville and Mercedes-Benz built a manufacturing site in North Charleston.
“The focus of the training center changed a little bit,” Walker said. “A lot of it is going to be advanced manufacturing to help aerospace and automotive (industries).”
And helping fill a workforce need among industries not just locally, but statewide, is the plan. Trident Tech officials said a study conducted by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA) revealed there would be 35,000 available jobs created across the region between 2017 and 2022—with production and mechanical positions at the top of the list. Hospitality jobs ranked second.
“Production and mechanical is the largest need, and the (aeronautical) training center is designed to meet that need,” Walker said.
But while individuals might be able, and in need of, work, they lack the proper skillset for the open jobs. Trident Tech officials said “middle skills” are the most lacking among the state’s employable population, and that the state has more job openings in the manufacturing field than qualified workers.
“We’re trying to create a pipeline for middle-skill workers,” Walker said. “Middle-skill jobs is where it’s at; it’s wide open.”
Contrary to long-held beliefs that a four-year degree outweighs a two-year one, Trident Tech officials said two-year degree holders and tech school graduates are now, more so than four-year graduates, reaping the benefits of finding work quickly and in lucrative careers.
“One year after graduation, a two-year degree exceeds a bachelor’s degree salary,” Howle said. “And five years later it still exceeds it. It’s just a new norm.”
School officials said graduates who complete the aeronautical and manufacturing programs can expect, on average, to see a $40,000 to $60,000 paycheck starting out, with room for advancement. And South Carolina has become a hotbed for such jobs.
“I don’t think anyone here would argue the economy here is on fire,” Walker said.
And it’s been industries’ collective cry for more workers and skilled workers that’s fueled the Trident Tech initiative.
“The voice of business is the only thing that has made this thing a reality,” Walker said.
Trident Tech also offers apprenticeships for students still in high school, allowing them to immediately qualify for quality work and pay upon graduation.
“We help facilitate the connection between the school district and the industries,” Walker said. “These young people come out from apprenticeship with a two-year work experience, and that’s a great opportunity for them.”
From humble beginnings that included eight students and a partnership with just five companies, the school’s apprenticeship program has since skyrocketed to 100-plus companies.
“We’re trying to get the young people interested early so they can jump right out of high school and get a career,” Walker said.
But the goal is to reach youth even earlier than high school. Walker said Trident Tech’s vision is to spark industry intrigue in children as young as middle school by having them tour the aeronautical center and explain to them what potential future careers await them. Howle agreed and explained her belief that such opportunities are part of the foundation of a productive society.
“We’re not going to be a successful country without that,” she said. “We have got to address industry, and we’ve got to address it in the Lowcountry…and it’s taken off just like an airplane.”
The $80M aeronautical center is estimated to annually instruct 5,370 students and employ 120 faculty members. In addition to providing academic and continuing-education programs, the facility will include classroom space, shops, labs, a café and dining area and open bays to accommodate aircraft, large aircraft parts and training aids.
“This building is—you can’t compare it, you can’t compare it,” Walker said. “One hanger in this facility is better than...at the airport right now.”
More specifically, the first floor will primarily serve academic programs and hands-on work related to aerospace/aircraft, mechatronics and automation engineering. It’s the site where students seeking an airframe and power plant license from the Federal Aviation Administration will spend most of their time, as well as students enrolled in avionics maintenance technology and the aircraft assembly certificate program.
The second floor will mostly serve continuing-education students and allow Trident Tech space to start new programs and enhance current ones, Walker said. Continuing-ed students specifically enrolled in advanced manufacturing can expect training focused on the entire assembly line process, from design to post-production. Also, for advanced mechatronics training, the facility will maintain two particular robots that replicate ones used in Volvo’s production line.
“We can train entry level people and help folks move up,” Walker said.
In addition to blue-collar job training, the second floor will also provide conference room space for professional development and seminars for white-collar careers.
The third floor will be solely reserved for Boeing and the ReadySC workforce training program. Walker said Boeing needs a larger space to annually re-certify its aircraft maintenance employees.
“Boeing is the reason for the aeronautical cluster in our state,” he said.
Walker and Howle spoke about the training center Wednesday inside Summerville Town Hall as part of a monthly Power Hour session sponsored by the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce.