Thomas Nelson officials learned in mid-January the College had been awarded a large grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to be used for a new trades training center. To meet the early October deadline, paperwork began in August. However, the beginnings of it can be traced back even further.
“It’s been over the past three years that we’ve been having conversations about offering trades up in the Williamsburg area,” said Bobby Perkins, interim director of Trades Training at Thomas Nelson.
Dr. Susan English, vice president of Academic Affairs and Workforce Development, joined the College in 2017 and has been aware of the need for more trades training almost since Day 1.
“When I first came on board, I heard about the need from Williamsburg employers,” she said, adding it’s been a dream of hers and many others at the College to expand in that area. “We’ve explored other ways to go about it, just haven’t been very fruitful with it.”
That was until Terry Wagner, Thomas Nelson’s Grants Program Manager, through collaboration with key faculty and staff, was able to secure a Strengthening Community College (SSC) training grant of $1,686,258. The money will allow the College to open a trades training center in the Williamsburg-James City County area that will offer new programs and expand existing ones.
“Having a trades training facility in the Upper Peninsula has been needed, and now we can do that,” Wagner said.
She added the new programs to be offered in the Historic Triangle will be concentrated in the trades, including roofing, siding and masonry. That will be in addition to expanding programs for plumbing, electrical, welding and machining.
“It’s going to be an extension of the programs that we already offer here at our two locations in Hampton,” Perkins said, referencing the Center for Construction and Building Trades at the Goodwill Center, and the Peninsula Workforce Development Center.
The academic affairs side will benefit as well.
“My programs are not going to be the only programs that are going to be impacted by this grant,” Perkins said. “We’ve got some programs on the academic affairs side, like the architectural technology, the drafting and design. There’s a possibility of a precision-machining program on the academic affairs side. It’s going to be more than just my trades program there.”
English said, “When we say this is about skilled trades, it will be academic affairs and workforce together.”
An example is the College is working on a transfer agreement with Old Dominion University.
“Students earning the new CAD Ship Drafting and Design Career Studies Certificate will be able to transfer into an advanced Digital Shipbuilding Certification program ODU is in the process of developing,” Wagner said.
There are other great aspects of the grant, too.
“It’s really geared to help get people with low incomes who are unemployed or underemployed the training they need and to train them as quickly as possible in well-paid stable jobs that are in high demand in our region,” Wagner said.
Two of those fields are shipbuilding/ship repair, and the construction trade.
“We know that there’s a population of high school students, as well as folks that are unemployed and underemployed, that these kinds of trades would be very enticing,” English said.
But as it is now, if any of those people live in the Williamsburg-James City County area, they have to drive to Hampton for training, which could deter them.
That might not be for much longer. One of the next steps for the College is to find a facility. The grant money can’t be used for a new building, but it can be used to modify an existing one. Therefore, the College is looking to rent space on the Upper Peninsula. Another immediate task is to finish the curriculum development, both by expanding the current programs and developing new ones.
Perkins doesn’t anticipate the center on the Upper Peninsula to be as big as the PWDC in Hampton, which includes 30 welding stations. He’s hoping to have 10 at the new place.
“It won’t be quite as many students as we’re currently running through our programs, but I think it’ll be close,” he said.
If all things go well, programs could be available in the fall.
“It’s going to do a lot of good for a lot of people,” Wagner said.
The grant is the largest the College has received since a nearly $2.5 million grant in 2014 for a RE-AIM (Rapid Employment in Advanced Integrated Manufacturing).