RCCC plans technology center with bond money

Nearly 65 percent of Cabarrus County voters approved a bond issue for Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in a Nov. 4 referendum.

As a result, the $9 million bond – plus $2 million more approved by the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners – will fund construction of RCCC’s new Advanced Technology Center in Cabarrus County.

The center will train individuals for careers that range from automated manufacturing and logistics to 3-D printing and cybersecurity.

The center is in the planning stage, according to a spokesperson for the college. Officials are working to determine the exact location and purposes of the building.

Advanced technology has many components, school leaders said, and the facility could take any of a number of different directions, depending on demand from employers throughout the region.

The 60,000-square-foot center will house classrooms and a lab building. It will address training needs for high-tech companies, offering industry-recognized certifications and hands-on training in disciplines that range from information technologies and welding, to nanotechnology and advanced manufacturing.

RCCC President Carol Spalding said she believes the center will help the region take its next economic step forward and lure technology-centric companies to the area.

The college’s expansion comes on the heels of two major announcements:

• Alevo – a high-tech battery maker – expects to employ 500 area residents by the end of this year and up to 6,000 in the next five years, according to Cabarrus Economic Development Corp. Company leaders said they expect to spend $1 billion to bring the former roughly 2,100-acre Philip Morris site on U.S. 29 in Concord to full capacity.

• Gordon Food Service – the fourth-largest food distributor in America, according to Forbes magazine – is building a $58 million, 300,000-square-foot facility in Kannapolis’ Afton Ridge Business Park. The 115-year-old company expects to create 275 local jobs.

“With the announcement of new high-tech jobs coming to Cabarrus County at the old Phillip Morris plant, it is more important than ever that we have the ability to train the workforce for new and emerging jobs,” Spalding said.

“(The center) will be a flagship to help attract employers to the region,” she said. “This will help us meet the needs of the community and bring a higher level of training to Cabarrus County, which is a big part of economic development.”

Paula Dibley, director of college relations, marketing and communications at RCCC, said enrollment for community colleges is declining generally, but RCCC’s enrollment is at the same level as last year.

Sid Valentine, associate vice president of industrial and engineering technologies at York Technical College in Rock Hill, said manufacturing has changed a great deal since numerous plant closings were in the news 10 to 20 years ago.

“People get nervous when they hear about jobs in manufacturing,” he said. “But manufacturing today is different: It’s high-tech and clean. This is a viable and promising career field.”

Van Madray, 61, is RCCC’s dean of engineering and business technologies. Most of the programs identified for the Advanced Technology Center will be under his supervision.

Madray, originally from Charleston, has more than 20 years of experience with community and technical colleges. One of his three daughters attends RCCC.

“Rowan and Cabarrus counties have been particularly hard-hit by manufacturing layoffs over the past decade, and by the general downturn of the economy over the past four years,” Madray said.

“Although some of the jobs that have been lost have not returned,” he said, “there is a growing trend in employment data indicating that many available jobs go unfilled because of the candidates’ lack of specific technical skills.”

North Carolina remains a strong manufacturing center, ranking fourth nationally in the percentage of the state’s gross domestic product that comes from the manufacturing sector, Madray said.

The technology center is a response to that trend, he said, and will use “high-skill applied learning in leading technologies to provide a marketable workforce for Rowan and Cabarrus counties, and for the Charlotte region. … All of this training will lead to high-skill/high-wage, local jobs.”

According to Wanted Analytics, recruiters posted more than 1,800 online job ads for robotics skills in March 2012, increasing 44 percent from March 2011.

Electrical and electronics engineering technicians make up 33 percent of all engineering technicians, according to the the U.S. Department of Labor. About 31,800 new job openings for electronics engineering technicians are projected between 2010 and 2020.

“The jobs of the future will be a part of this trend toward smart automation,” Madray said. “The Advanced Technology Center will make us more competitive in the hunt for new industry in our area to replace the jobs we have lost.”