U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez and Rep. Virginia A. Foxx were in nearby King on Tuesday to learn about an innovative program at the Northwest Forsyth Tech Center that can turn unskilled workers into sought-after employees making $12 to $22 an hour over the course of a nine week program.
Through the Forsyth Electrical Lineman Pre-Apprenticeship program students learn academic and field skills necessary for entry-level occupations in the utility industry. The regional top employers, including Pike Electric and Duke Energy, recruits program graduates to participate in a full registered apprenticeship program where wages range from a starting salary for a first-year apprenticeship of $12.60 to upwards of $22 after from the program.
“This is a win-win situation,” said Perez. “They are not only building the workforce, but hey are building the middle class and building infrastructure. Every single person we asked how they liked this job, they said they love it.
“They are punching their ticket to the middle class and that is great,” he added. “We are trying to scale and support models like this that help employers meet their needs and help people who want a bright future in this community to thrive.”
Forsyth Tech Director of Occupational Programs Bill Adams said the nine-week course draws students from surrounding counties and from as far away as California, New York and Florida.
“We normally have a full class of 24 students,” he said. “We graduate about 85 percent. In the five years we have been doing this we have 380 students and at least 290 of those we know have gotten a job in this field.”
Adams said the course runs from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m Monday through Thursday.
“It is just like a work day,” he said. “We get students right out of high school as well as some folks who have been working for several years and want to change jobs. There is no major experience requirement other than they have to not be afraid of heights and weigh less than 275 pounds which is the weight limit in the bucket truck lift.”
Adams said many students have already been offered a job by the time they graduate from the program.
“It just depends on how picky they are about being willing to move,” he said, noting that the program brings students to stay, and spend money, in the area. “Mostly the students focus on electrical utilities, but if they can do that then they can do cable as well.”
Students spend some time in the classroom, but 75 to 80 percent of the course is hands on experience learning how to climb poles, protect themselves from live wires, shut off transformers and even rescue other linemen who have been injured on the job.
During Tuesday’s visit, students demonstrated rescuing a lineman from a pole, rescuing a lineman from a bucket truck and how transformers can be disconnected from the main line when workers need to service them.
Billy Stewart, a 17-year-old student from Reaford, showed Perez and Foxx how to save a lineman who had been electrocuted while climbing a pole.
He said he found out about the Forsyth Tech program on Google, and while it was not his first choice, he said he was glad he decided to come here.
“This is a place where people with low funds can get a good education,” he said. “We have top linemen instructors here. I also really like being in King. Everybody is really nice and people talk to us about the school and think it is really interesting.”
Stewart said he decided to pursue a career as a lineman because it promised a good, dependable paycheck.
“You will always be able to make good money your whole life,” he said. “It is more in demand than pretty much any other job.”
Forsyth Tech President Dr. Gary M. Green said he was thrilled to have the Secretary of Labor visit the facility.
“This program is about employers coming together with community colleges and the state department of labor and commerce to create jobs for the people of the community and a skilled workforce for the companies that rely on us,” he said. “Having the secretary visit is just recognition of what is going on here.”
He said he hoped to further expand the college’s offerings in Stokes County with the new Forsyth Tech building planned in the Meadows community.
“That is going to be a great addition for us and it is much needed to have that kind of quality community college presence in Stokes County,” he said. “It will be a big boost for the county and makes a statement about the county investing in its own future and the future of its young people. We can’t wait to get in there.”
Later in the day, Perez and Foxx traveled to Forsyth Technical Community College’s main campus to tour the school’s high-tech biosciences program, funded in part with a $15 million, U.S. Department of Labor grant in 2012. The program has developed the first-in-the-nation biosciences training standards. The region’s top employers and research institutes, including Herbalife, Carolina Liquid Chemistries and the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine employ its graduates. The program is developing a highly skilled workforce that is making Winston-Salem a national hub for bioscience research and innovation.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.