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Roane State celebrates Manufacturing Day

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Roane State Community College

Roane State Community College student James Eldridge, 25, spends his days on the farm, digging ditches and prepping fields.

He spends his nights in the classroom, studying robotics and experimenting with programmable logic controllers.

Eldridge’s days are about where he is; his nights are about where he wants to go.

“I want that middle class life and going to school is how you get that,” Eldridge said. “You have to have an education, and this is the industry here that is growing the most. I’m at the ground floor of this field.”

The growing industry is advanced manufacturing, and it was showcased during Roane State’s Manufacturing Day event Oct. 2 at the college’s Clinton Higher Education and Workforce Training Facility. More than 100 students from Anderson County, Morgan County and Oak Ridge participated in Manufacturing Day. The students visited the Clinton facility and learned about clean, high-tech manufacturing careers.

Roane State faculty, staff and students demonstrated equipment used in the college’s mechatronics program and in its injection molding courses. Eldridge, who is enrolled in the two-year mechatronics program, was one of the student leaders.

Eldridge said people often perceive manufacturing jobs as repetitive, boring and dirty. Those perceptions are wrong, he said.

Mechatronics courses, for example, train students to become technicians who operate and repair high-tech automated equipment. The field blends electronics, robotics, computer programming and additional technical subjects. As Eldridge pointed out, the manufacturing jobs he’s training for are ones where he would wear khakis and a polo shirt to work.

“You think a lot,” Eldridge said. “You have to look at the system and not the part. You have to understand the facility as a whole. You don’t just drudge on and on, pulling that lever. You are doing a lot of problem-solving. It’s something different almost every day.”

That exactly the point Roane State program director Gordon Williams wants students to understand about fields such as mechatronics or injection molding (a process where molten material is injected into a mold to form parts).

“It’s critical that students understand that manufacturing today means working in a clean environment and using your mind to solve problems,” Williams said. “Great careers are out there for students who have these skills. We’ve received tremendous support from employers and school systems, and we want everyone to understand the opportunities that are possible with the manufacturing education Roane State offers.”

The mechatronics program, offered as a one-year certificate and a two-year degree, is supported by a $970,000 Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP) grant. LEAP, a program of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and an initiative of the Drive to 55, has funded over $10 million dollars to workforce and education partnerships across Tennessee since it was passed into law by the legislature in 2013.

The LEAP grant helped Roane State expand mechatronics into a two-year program and to offer dual credit mechatronics course for students at Anderson County High School, Clinton High School and Oak Ridge High School. Dual credit allows high school students to earn college credit and high school credit at the same time.

“Roane State’s workforce development initiatives are a strong example of how education is meeting the needs of employers in the region,” said Russ Deaton, interim executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “By investing in programs that promote skilled workers in areas such as mechatronics and injection molding, Roane State is supporting the state’s Drive to 55 goals and demonstrating the success of a LEAP community.”

The ongoing partnerships between Roane State and employers are important for students such as Eldridge.

“The training and equipment here is second to none,” he said. “This place has companies working with us. The companies are connected to this place. They are directly involved with this, and they need what this place produces. That is an opportunity you don’t get at a lot of colleges.”

To learn more about mechatronics at Roane State, visit roanestate.edu/mechatronics or contact program director Gordon Williams at (865) 354-3000 ext. 4899, williamsg1@roanestate.edu.

For more information about all of Roane State’s workforce development programs visit roanestate.edu/workforce.

Tennessee’s Community Colleges is a system of 13 colleges offering a high-quality, affordable, convenient and personal education to prepare students to achieve their educational and career goals in two years or less. All colleges in the system offer associate degree and certificate programs, workforce development programs and transfer pathways to four-year degrees. For more information, please visit tncommunitycolleges.org.