APPALACHIA — Mountain Empire Community College has seen five decades of meeting far Southwest Virginia’s career training needs, from mining technology to corrections and law enforcement.

With Gov. Ralph Northam and the General Assembly’s mandate for free tuition for students in career-path degree and certificate programs, MECC’s leadership sees that as just another chapter in the college’s response to regional needs.

MECC President Kristin Westover says the Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back legislative package signed into law by Northam in March fits into the institution’s career training evolution.

The G-3 program starts with the fall 2021 semester at MECC and its 22 sister institutions across the Virginia Community College System.

As Southwest Virginia has shifted from a coal-based economy to a broader range of jobs, Westover said MECC changed with the region.

Virginia and the federal government started three prisons in Wise and Lee counties in the mid-1990s. MECC expanded its law enforcement program training and developed a corrections program to help meet the need for corrections officers.

Around the same period, MECC developed its manufacturing technology program in response to more computerized equipment and processes in the private sector, Westover said, and programs have been added.

Other programs — construction trades, nursing, electrical, plumbing and several other career paths — have been part of MECC’s curriculum, and the catalog keeps growing.

“We’ve got 80 programs that are fully fundable under G3, from associate of applied science degrees and career certificates to industry-accepted training,” Westover said. “This creates an incredible opportunity for students looking to train in several professions.”

MECC’s nursing program — part of a consortium of other community colleges in the region — became autonomous in 2019, MECC Health Sciences Dean Kim Dorton said. With cooperation from Ballad Health, nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the area, students have plenty of opportunities for clinical work toward degrees and certificates, she added.

While COVID-19 forced all programs including nursing to adapt to remote learning and social distancing, Dorton said the program’s students adapted. Most students remained in the program through the past year despite the pandemic’s impact on hospital and other clinical sites, she added.

Within the past three years, MECC has expanded its physical campus to include several of those 80 career programs, said Vicki Ratliff, who retires this summer as MECC’s academic affairs and workforce solutions vice president.

The college, working with Wise County Schools, has converted the former Appalachia Elementary School into the Center for Workforce and Innovation of Appalachia. What was once the school gym has been converted to a metal fabrication classroom where students learn not only welding but computer-controlled parts production.

As the region’s mining sector shrinks, Ratliff said, the CWIA has cooperated with agencies including the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission and economic development partnership InvestSWVA on immediate projects including a medical records data center in Scott County and agricultural diversification.

At the CWIA, old classrooms have been revamped into lab space for MECC’s dental assistant program and electrical instruction rooms.

“We have dummies and training gear so our students can learn everything from cleanings to doing X-rays,” said dental instructor Dr. Emily Kate Bowen. “Our students graduate ready to go to work in dental practices.”

A “garden” of utility poles with crossarms, electrical insulators and guywires forms the main classroom for MECC’s lineman program.

“We’re unique among schools that offer lineman training,” said instructor Mike Rose, “because we teach how to install poles and maintain transmission networks in mountainous conditions. Our grads are in high demand by utility companies and line maintenance contractors because they know how to take equipment up mountains and work in the air above slopes.”

The CWIA also offers instruction in truck driving or heavy equipment operation via a multi-use simulator and a working bread-board simulator that shows students how hydraulic systems and air brake systems work. The center soon will be able to perform Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles exams for commercial driver’s licenses

CWIA Workforce Coordinator Lee Davis said some of the truck and heavy equipment system demonstrators work so well that the Virginia State Police has asked to rotate truck safety enforcement troopers through the CWIA to train on them.

While the pandemic slowed its run-up, Ratliff said she expects the Smart Farming Center to open at CWIA as equipment arrives before the fall semester. Center director Rosa Cooke said the college has already worked with LENOWISCO and InvestSWVA on Project Thoroughbred.

Thoroughbred has helped area farmers start growing barley as a winter crop to supplement other crops and livestock, Cooke said. Those growers have been able to sell their grain to specialty brewers in the region, she said, and MECC is helping train people in small grains production.

As G-3 starts in the fall semester, the state will offer low-income students in career programs help with food, transportation, and child care.

Full-time students qualifying for full federal Pell grants will receive student — support incentive grants on a semester basis — up to $900 per semester and up to $450 per summer term.

MECC, like other VCCS colleges, will see performance payments for each eligible student completing 30 credit hours and another payment for each student earning an eligible associate degree.

Westover said CARES Act and other federal and state funding in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic can help students get a head start for G-3 for summer class enrollment. The state will also offer free individual advising on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) until June 30 by going online: virginiacan.org/fafsa.

“If students come to us this summer, we will try to find a way to get them financial aid,” she said.

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