DECATUR — With the goal of advancing its mission to prepare students to fill immediate needs in the local job market, Richland Community College is poised to break ground this week on the Workforce Development Institute.

“It’s so exciting,” college President Gayle Saunders said of the project. “We’re working with different partnerships to determine how to align work force needs with the available employment pool, and we’re really hoping the Workforce Development Institute will capture both high school and college students’ interests in some of the new careers that are available.”

The groundbreaking ceremony is set for 11 a.m. Tuesday, April 2, on the east side of the college campus.

Saunders said the Workforce Development Institute project, the college’s largest construction project since its main campus was dedicated in 1988, has been in the works for several years.

“We entered into a conversation with the Heartland Technical Academy about three years ago about transferring their programs to our campus,” she said. “We were able to move most of the programs over, but there were about five programs that were still downtown that we just didn’t have the facility space for, so the idea for the Workforce Development Institute was born.”

The bulk of the $16 million project will consist of a new 45,000-square foot building on the east end of the Richland campus to house technical programs, including auto body, auto technology, diesel technology and building trades. But the project will bring about changes that will affect the entire campus.

“The Workforce Development Institute is really a conceptual project that will put the whole campus under construction for the next 18 months,” Saunders said. “It consists of four large projects: the new facility, which will also include a wellness and fitness center; the addition of a restaurant dining area on the west side of the Shilling (Community Education) Center for the Culinary Arts Institute; the renovation of the college’s existing fitness and locker room space into the Early Childhood Education Center; and the renovation of the existing auto technology space into a welding lab.”

Trina Parish, 33, of Decatur is a welding student at Richland. Parish is excited about the project and what it will mean for the welding program.

“I think the Workforce Development Institute will be great,” she said Wednesday as she practiced her metal inert gas (MIG) welding skills. “It will give us more space to work in, and the more space the better. It will definitely help the work force, too.”

One of two female students in the program, Parish said she turned to welding 18 months ago when she realized she needed a career change.

“I was actually a nurse, but then I burnt out,” she said. “I needed something new, so I decided I wanted to try something hands-on. I know there are lots of job opportunities out there (for welders), also.”

Welding student Cody Kearney, who will graduate in May, said he believes the institute will allow for even more technical programs, which are vital to the community.

“It’s very important for Richland to offer programs like these,” the 44-year-old said. “The Workforce Development Institute will give more students a chance to learn and experience these technical programs, and with welding, the space here has been limited, so now welding students will have more room to work and learn. It’s an excellent curriculum, and with the economy the way it is, there is a high need for more welders.”

A former machinist and welder at Caterpillar Inc., Kearney left his job to pursue an associate degree in applied science, with a focus in pipe welding.

“My dad was a welder at Caterpillar for 20 years, and once I graduate, I will take the Certified Welding Inspector test to see if I can work on pipelines,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities out there.”

The Workforce Development Institute will provide more space and opportunities for automotive students, as well, student Josh Albert of Decatur said.

“We’ll be able to fit more cars in the lab and learn more skills,” he said.

Albert, who’s been in the automotive program for a little over a year, said he’s excited to earn his certification and work on cars full time.

“I’ve done a lot of car work at home, but I’m excited that I’ll be able to do this as a job once I get my certification. There are a lot of job opportunities in the automotive field,” Albert said.

Clarence Bryant, 19, said although he’s currently working on his automotive certification, he’s also eager to learn about diesel technology, a new program that will be offered at the Workforce Development Institute.

“I’m hoping to work in diesel someday,” he said.

Saunders said offering new programs, providing skills training and helping fulfill employers’ needs are just some of the goals she has for the new institute.

“Through the Workforce Development Institute, we’re addressing a lot of economic development dreams,” she said. “We’re hoping to bring new employers to the area, and when we do, we want to have a strong work force ready.”

Doug Brauer is Richland’s vice president of Economic Development and Innovative Workforce Solutions.

“With the new facilities, we’ll be able to offer more dual-credit opportunities to high school students, and we’ll be able to offer more to the community at-large,” Brauer said. “When you look at the economy, you have to look at the areas where there are job openings or where there will be jobs in the future, and we need the programs in place that will enable people to get those jobs.”

nharbour@herald-review.com|(217) 421-7963

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