By George Willoughby |

Piedmont Community College’s (PCC) proposed Advanced Technology Center (ATC) in the $20 million range could get a head start with a donated building, PCC President Pamela Senegal told the Person County Board of Commissioners Monday.

The planned training center would assist a future industry at the Person County Mega Park as well as provide skilled employees for advanced manufacturing companies already located in the county.

The training center is not funded in the county’s proposed budget and the commissioners did not take any action to committing the facility.

First-term commissioners Charlie Palmer and P.J. Gentry said they would like to study the item more as budget discussions continue.

After capital requests were halted in the current fiscal year, Senegal said the project is about a year behind the intended timeline.

A concrete answer on the possibility of the donated building could come in as soon as 30 days, Senegal said.

Senegal’s presentation centered around five questions: does Person County need an ATC?; what is PCC doing to prepare the workforce?; what investment is needed for an ATC?; what funding options are available for funding an ATC?; and does Person County have a shared commitment to invest in an ATC?

As industries transition toward enhanced decision making using artificial intelligence and data analytics, which Senegal called “industry 5.0”, advanced manufacturers said key skill areas need to addressed.

“While our existing training materials are adequate for meeting their needs today, as they look forward, they realize that there are some gaps in what we’re able to provide in terms of training,” Senegal said.

An ATC feasibility study compared current PCC facilities to Guilford Technical Community College’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Alamance Community College, which are noted as having updated equipment and clean spaces consistent with what industry 5.0 looks like.

“If you’ve had a chance to visit GKN or Spuntech, you’ll notice that those facilities are perfectly clean. They’re well ventilated and there are lots of electronic equipment,” Senegal said. “These are examples of how we need our facilities to look to really do an adequate job of preparing folks for industry 5.0.”

In other areas, like Lee, Harnett and Chatham counties, served by Senegal’s previous institution, Central Carolina Community College, investments in the area’s workforce preceded large economic announcements.

In Lee County, Senegal said the county is purchasing a former Magneti Marelli manufacturing building to add to the CCCC innovation center.

The Apple announcement in Wake County could also be an advantage to PCC.

“What’s exciting to me as an educator about the announcement from Apple is not just the 3,000 jobs, but it’s also the $100 million that they are committing to furthering the education of those in the region so they can be prepared for these technology jobs as well,” Senegal said. “We’re within commuting distance for these kids of jobs. We already know that citizens are comfortable commuting, but they want to come back here and they want to live here.”

For potential industries that could come to the Person County Mega Park, there is the need for skilled workers on day one.

“The idea that we might wait until we land someone to then start scrambling to prepare our workforce is probably not our best opportunity,” Senegal said. “The best opportunity for us, I hope, is to start doing that investment now so that we are ready, not only to help our existing companies grow and meet their needs, but for other manufacturers that will inevitably relocate to this area.”

The feasibility study gave a sounding “yes” to if the county needed such a training center, Senegal said.

What is PCC doing to prepare the workforce?

Senegal said the school has recently realigned its programs around five areas corresponding to five career paths – business, advanced manufacturing, information technology, arts and silences and public safety.

Senegal said, despite rumors to the contrary, the school has not cut its gunsmithing or HVAC programs but has added continuing education options for students who do not wish to pursue full degrees in those programs.

The school has also added work-based learning, or internships, to almost all of its degree programs and long-term continuing education programs, about 75 percent of which turn into full-time job offers.

A program for micro-entrepreneurs who have completed some of the school’s small business seminars matches the individual’s savings without a required payback shows early promise and Senegal said the PCC would like to expand the program with a higher monetary threshold.

Senegal said the school has partnered with the SEMI Works pipeline for the semiconductor industry by moving forward as an accredited program and has a variety of scholarships for students wishing to pursue manufacturing.

SEMI is the the electronics design and manufacturing supply chain industry association.

Senegal showed a list of the school’s 37 advanced manufacturing-related programs.

“If the question is what is PCC doing to prepare the workforce?,” Senegal said. “The answer is a lot and our commitment is that we will continue to evolve to meet the needs of this area’s workforce.”

What investment is needed for an ATC?

Based on the feasibility study’s comparison of renovation versus new construction, Senegal said the recommendation was new construction on U.S 501 for increased visibility.

That construction would cost $21-28 million

However, another opportunity that has emerged in the last two weeks has been a donated space which could add a manufacturing incubator or flex space.

“Imagine a lab that has lots of great machining equipment,” Senegal said. “During the day, we’re running machining classes and on the evenings and weekends, those who might have a manufacturing idea could book the space and create an opportunity for that equipment to have more than one purpose.”

That space would open another revenue stream and well position the school for the $2-3 million expected cost for equipment and open an opportunity for grants, Senegal said.

The timeline to completion would be shorter than new construction.

With a new build, Senegal said best estimates put the school in the building in fall 2024.

Another possibility was to renovate current PCC facilities, but that would require the school to stop programs.

“If we were to renovate our welding space, for example,” Senegal said. “That means I’d have to shut down my welding program and lose at least a semester’s worth of tuition and fees and training opportunities while the space is being renovated.”

Senegal said the feasibility study found that that lost money combined with costs to move equipment would be prohibitive for renovating current buildings.

She said the school also doesn’t have the available space to move programs around internally during renovations.

What funding options are available?

Based on conversations with legislators, Senegal said the school expects a $10 million legislative allocation.

Senegal also said the state Department of Commerce has grants tied to rural revitalization and multi-use economic development projects.

“They’re very excited about this project, think that it has great merit and think that it aligns very nicely with some of their focus areas,” Senegal said.

Conversations with the U.S. Economic Development Administration were also favorable.

Senegal said those departments are waiting on access to federal funding and waiting on guidelines on how those funds are spent.

“The important thing is having a project teed up so that we will be able to take advantage of those funds that come available,” Senegal said. “One of the options that you didn’t see was that I come here and ask for all $25 to $28 million from Person County – we’re actively looking to try and figure out how to reduce the capital outlay costs for the county.”

To have a shovel-ready project, the county would need to secure a site and have all design, engineering and architectural plans ready.

Any approvals for the project would also have to come from the college’s Board of Trustees, Senegal.

Does the county have a shared commitment to invest in an ATC?

Finally, Senegal asked if the board has a shared commitment to invest in the ATC, outlining some of the previous commitments.

In 2019, the Board of Commissioners funded the center’s feasibility study.

Senegal said the county’s Economic Development Commission lists education and workforce development investments as its top priority in its 2019-22 strategic plan.

Senegal said the college has actively engaged other funding sources to reduce the financial impact on the county and there is a potential future investment in the county from a the Mega Park, which would be supported by this training center.

Commissioner Derrick Sims said the center would be a good tool to have in place to get ready for a future business at the Mega Park, but would also support other businesses searching for employees now.

Board chair Gordon Powell asked where PCC stood on SEMI curriculum.

Senegal said, as an educational member of SEMI, five programs are certified by the association and companies can see that graduates of those programs have completed a certified curriculum.

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