The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center's newest addition — a welding lab that offers entry-level training in the field — received a rousing welcome yesterday from state and local officials who gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the SVHEC Innovation Center. Guests included Dietra Trent, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Education and a Halifax County native, Mary Rae Carter with the Department of Commerce and Trade, and Keith Harkins, executive director of the Virginia Technical Institute, which will oversee the South Boston training program.
Dr. Betty Adams, executive director of the SVHEC, hailed the potential of the welding lab to provide vocational skills that the higher education world has largely overlooked. "What we're seeing with ... our welding initiative is something of a market correction" in higher education, said Adams. She lamented the gaps in trade and vocational education available to local residents and noted that "as baby boomers retire, they're leaving behind a gap in the workforce. These are jobs that are out there and they pay very well."
With the new industry-certified training at the SVHEC welding lab, "you're not earning a degree, you're earning a credential which is the good housekeeping seal of approval from industry," she said.
Trent, who traveled in from Richmond to attend Wednesday's ribbon-cutting, was blunt in her assessment that many students have not been well served by the traditional focus on academics in higher education and the four-year degree. "It's not always the best path to a career. It's not always the most economical," she said.
Trent said a niece of hers who lives in Halifax County and who recently graduated from the high school passed up a chance to go "any college she wanted" to enroll in the SVHEC welding program. She decided that she likes welding, said Trent, and would rather start building her skills in the field than "go to college and not know what she wants to do." "I said, 'good for you,'" recounted Trent.
Harkins added that VTI — based in Altavista — emphasizes hand-on engagement and learning, often providing instruction unlike anything students and people already in the workforce have experienced before. "I can tell you there are few things better than to see a person rediscover that feeling of hope," said Harkins. John Cannon, a member of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, which largely funded the expansion, called it a boost for the area's growth prospects. "I can tell you it's going to bring industry to the area ... It's what industries are looking for. They're looking for a trained workforce. They will come.," said Cannon. The Tobacco Commission provided some $175,000 for the welding lab and to enroll the initial cohort of 18 students, who began their training in August.
The new welding lab is located in the lower floor of the SVHEC Innovation Center and features training stalls and an assortment of welding tools and equipment. The SVHEC will look to enroll the next class in January 2015, officials said. The importance of welding as a profession has been driven home by two large pipeline projects unfolding in the area — Williams Transco Energy's extension of a natural gas pipeline through Halifax County to the new Dominion gas-fired power plant in Brunswick County, and a three-state, $5 billion gas pipeline announced last week by Dominion and three other major energy partners. The line will run through central and southern Virginia, including through Prince Edward, Nottoway and Brunswick counties. Welding is "a skill and a talent and something we need now in the community and something that benefit us for years to come," said Cristie Neller, plant director of the Clover Power Plant, which is providing support for the program.