South Carolina businesses are struggling to keep up with enough trained workers to fill open jobs.
But the West Ashley Center for Advanced Studies is aiming to equip students from a young age to be career-minded and skills-oriented.
According to Dale Metzger, principal of the center, the goal is to have every student earn career- and/or college-readiness certification by the time they complete their semester, along with normal high school credits and soft skills. Students will leave with training and industry certifications in hand, enabling them to directly enter the workforce or to pursue higher education better prepared for college coursework and with a better understanding of their career goals.
The center offers 11 programs that cover a variety of fields, including cybersecurity, welding, media technology, biomedical sciences, health science technology, computer service and repair, pre-engineering, automotive technology and mechatronics integrated technologies.
“There’s a need for these types of fields, especially with the welding and the automotive industries having such a hard time filling open positions,” Metzger said. “With all the construction going on, the recent announcement of the 526 completion, there’s going to be a lot more going on, so there’s great opportunities moving forward in these fields, and we just ought to be able to create opportunities for young people take advantage of.”
Specific programs offered were chosen after working with the S.C. Chamber of Commerce to identify the high-wage, high-opportunity jobs in the future of South Carolina, Metzger said.
“We worked really closely with them (the chamber) to choose pathways that will meet the needs of the workforce in the next 10-20 years,” he said.
According to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s 2020 study on talent in demand, the Charleston area is expected to add 28,000 new jobs between 2019-2024. Within 91% of that projected growth includes jobs in production and mechanical, engineering, construction, medical and information technology.
“We want these kids leaving high school with realistic job expectations, to walk out of here with the industry certifications that allow them to go directly into the workforce of tomorrow and earn a livable wage or with the foundation and experience in their field of choice when they go off to college,” Metzger said.
One month into its opening, the West Ashley Center for Advanced Studies has enrolled about 700 students for the current semester, some taking multiple courses. Students who show interest in a certain program work with school guidance counselors to fit the courses into their schedules.
Metzger said student engagement has been phenomenal, citing the welding program, which had only about 60 available spots, but saw more than 100 students who expressed interest. In such case, counselors give priority to those who have more room in their schedule and to upperclassmen, who are closer to graduation, he said.
Once students are enrolled in courses, they have access to a center that includes study halls, conference rooms, collaboration zones and lecture halls. The first-floor entrance also includes a café and sitting area that allows for versatile use of space.
Work bays include teaching areas for welding, mechatronics and automotive classes, as well as observation windows that look down into these spaces from the second floor. The center also has a full production studio adjacent to TV and audio suites, as well as a full medical lab with opportunity for hands-on learning.
“We’ve worked to develop business partnerships within local industry to ensure our certified students will be eligible for the high-paying jobs of the future within their companies,” Metzger said, adding that discussions are in the progress with Rick Hendrick to provide summer internships and shadowing opportunities at the automotive company.
The West Ashley center is a $42.7 million project that was funded by the Charleston Educational Capital Improvements Sales and Use Tax referendum of 2014. This 100,000-square-foot facility located at 4066 Wildcat Way is Charleston County School District’s third center for advanced studies. Other locations include North Charleston and Mount Pleasant.
Staff at West Ashley includes 12 teachers, four support staff members, one assistant principal, a school counselor and career specialists.
“We want to give kids a real taste of what it’s like to be in the workforce with real-world experiences, so they know what they’re expecting when they get to the next level,” Metzger said.
“But they’re eager to learn and trainable, and will have already got their certifications in these various fields to be ready to launch to be a viable part of the workforce of the future,” Metzger said.