South Boston facility uplifts region’s prospects
Southern Virginia is an area rich in heritage, hospitality and resources. One of its greatest resources is its people, characterized by strong work ethic, loyalty and dedication to task.
The region’s economic outlook has suffered in recent decades, however, as textiles, agriculture and other traditional commerce changed or diminished.
Countering these withering effects, an idea planted in the 1980s has broken through the hardscrabble soil of economic woe, sprouted and blossomed into a vigorous crop of hope and opportunity.
“In 1986, foundational partners Danville Community College, Southside Virginia Community College and Longwood College came together and cut the ribbon on what was originally called the South Boston/Halifax County Continuing Education Center,” says Dr. Betty H. Adams. Adams is executive director of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), descendant of the center founded in 1986.
“Our first home was a 500-square-foot mobile unit on the grounds of the local high school,” she adds.
Enrollment grew and in 2001, the center moved into an abandoned 100,000- square-foot tobacco warehouse donated to the cause. Four years later, the General Assembly designated the facility a state agency, eligible for state funding.
Since then, SVHEC has quietly but steadily expanded the region’s prospects, providing what the area’s people need: options for education and training; and with them, hope for a better economic future.
Located in South Boston’s historic tobacco warehouse district, the center is one of five in Virginia, and the only one not located on or near a community-college campus. The others are in Abingdon, Martinsville, Roanoke and Danville.
While the center originally focused on improving higher-education opportunities in the region, its mission statement has been broadened. “Advancing the potential of Southern Virginia through education, innovation and collaboration” is the center’s current mission statement.
Adams says the center has expanded its scope over the past six or seven years to include delivering training for noncredit, industry-approved credentials, in addition to partnering with colleges and universities to provide access to traditional degree-program opportunities. This has been accomplished largely through innovation and collaboration with business and industry in direct response to community needs.
“Our competitive advantage is the ability to be flexible and, therefore, responsive to the needs of the community and industry,” Adams says. The center’s five main areas of concentration are facilitating access to two- and four-year degree programs, STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, math and heath) outreach, advanced manufacturing research and development, workforce development, and capacity building, which means ensuring there are enough workers, facilities, transportation and the other components of community in place for future growth.
Today, two former tobacco warehouses house the center’s operations, which include state-of-the-art labs for occupations ranging from information technology to nursing to welding.
“Southside Virginia has been, and continues to be, in a highly stressed economic condition. Job and career opportunities for the region’s residents have been limited far too long,” notes John C. Lee, Jr., CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative headquartered in Chase City. Lee was appointed by the governor to serve on the SVHEC board and serves as the vice chairman of the SVHEC Foundation board as well. The foundation owns the center’s facilities and raises money to fund its operations.
“We want new and existing industries to take advantage of the work force that’s already here, but many of these companies need highly specialized skilled workers,” he adds.
“The requirements to get into the workforce have changed tremendously,” Adams explains. “We have to have a skilled workforce, which means we need to provide affordable, accessible higher education.”
COLLABORATION AND RESPONSE TO INDUSTRY NEEDS
A case in point is the IT Data Center lab. “Several years ago, we started a partnership (with SVHEC) to benefit the workforce and the
community at large,” says Anthony Putorek, senior lead workforce development program manager for Microsoft, which has a data center in nearby Boydton.
“We helped design and set up a datacenter lab, set up scholarships, with lots of close collaboration, mentoring and hands-on training,” Putorek adds. “This has become one of the best hands-on training facilities for entry-level technicians. SVHEC is the first place this program was developed, and we now use it as a model for communities around the world where we have data centers.”
“We worked with SVHEC to develop some specialized welding training,” adds Patricia Walker, an engineer with ABB, a global electrification products company that manufactures liquid-filled distribution and small power transformers. “Our entire welding workforce went through the training, and the center also provided computer-software training for our quality team, which interfaces with customers.”
Walker notes that SVHEC is a valuable community resource that “brings education to the fingertips of the people, and partners as well with local industry to create educational and economic opportunities.”
“Our company has benefitted from the welding program,” says J.R. Griffin, president of Comfort Systems, USA. “We’ve hired four of the students who completed the program. And as important as the welding program is the workforce-readiness training program that SVHEC offers. This ensures that people have the basic work skills they need — how to do a resumé, how to dress for an interview, the importance of punctuality.
“There are lots of good things going on at the SVHEC,” Griffin continues. “Students can get a two- or four year engineering degree via distance learning, and also get specific training for a particular job; education and training tailored for our region.”
Health care is one of SVHEC’s emphasis areas, and the Center for Nursing Excellence grew out of the community need for a quality nursing workforce.
Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital has supported and helped develop the Center for Nursing Excellence, according to Torie Bashay, vice president of patient care services and chief nurse executive at the hospital. The hospital’s support includes assistance in establishing and maintaining a real-life hospital-room laboratory in which students treat “patients” in a variety of training scenarios.
“We employ many of the graduates from that nursing program,” says Bashay. “The quality of care we provide hinges on nurses being prepared and ready to do the job of nursing, and high-quality nurses are graduating from the Center for Nursing Excellence.”
STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: ‘A GREAT EXPERIENCE’
“It was a great experience,” says Allen Fallen, a South Boston resident. “I was working in landscaping and took the welding course to improve my job prospects. I passed the welding test, was certified and had a welding job within two weeks after I finished the course.” Sharon Card, network administrator for Charlotte County Schools, enrolled in SVHEC’s IT Academy to enhance her job knowledge and skills. The Chase City resident has taken training at the IT academy twice, and received three certifications that have directly improved her ability to do her work.
“Many of the students in my classes were older — in their 40s and 50s — and many were in the midst of career changes,” Card notes. Card hired one of the students she met at the academy. “It’s a great way to prepare for an IT certification if you’re not going to college,” she says. “There are a lot of IT jobs out there now.”
Danville resident Kierra Watson also attended the IT Academy before being hired at GCAPS, the Halifax County tire research center. “I had a job, but not in IT, and I wanted to get into IT,” says Watson. “I heard about the higher education center on Facebook from a high school friend who’d been accepted into the academy. I was accepted into the program and it was an amazing experience. I was working and I would go to class after work, and it never got tiresome. I wanted to go to class. I got a job in IT after I finished the second course.”
Eric Thomas of Altavista works at Georgia Pacific in Gladys, Virginia, as a technician. He earned his Siemens Level 1 certification through the SVHEC Mechatronics program.
“I was working at a Walmart distribution center in North Carolina when I heard about SVHEC. My goal was to further my education and increase my job opportunities,” he says. “The program and the center are great and I really like them. The instructors are very supportive and want to see their students do well. They invite students to contact them with any questions or problems after we’ve finished the program.”
PRODUCT DESIGN, RESEARCH, OPPORTUNITY AND HOPE
David Kenealy is special assistant to the executive director for research and development. He came to SVHEC in 2008 from the community-college system in North Carolina to build the center’s Product Design & Development Program.
In 2010, the PD&D Program was expanded with the opening of the Research & Development Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Energy Efficiency.
R&D CAMEE connects industry, small businesses and entrepreneurs with research and development, prototyping, proof of concept and limited production runs to support commercialization and economic development.
Among projects developed through SVHEC’s R&D center are design-and manufacture processes for a specialized cabinetry stapler, reusable barrels for brewing spirits, and a precision machined part for Steinway & Sons piano frames.
“The product is not the point,” Kenealy notes. Rather, process is R&D CAMEE’s magic. “We bring a design, engineering and manufacturing experience based on today’s digital technology,” says Kenealy. “We work with business and industry to help serve that part of the new economy.”
“In the past 10 years, we’ve tried to focus on training that will lead to jobs in the region, jobs that already exist or jobs that are anticipated to exist in the future,” says SVHEC Executive Director Adams, “in health care, advanced manufacturing, information technology, energy and education.”
In 2018, SVHEC workforce trainees earned 416 industry credentials, with almost 200 trainees finding new jobs or advancing in current jobs. SVHEC workforce training programs produce an 89 percent completion rate and an 87 percent employment rate.
“When it comes to your career, having choices is one of life’s greatest benefits,” says Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative CEO Lee.
“The center provides great career choices and also represents great hope to those who are looking for a second chance at a better life,” Lee adds. “It is a fact that the availability of quality education and training alternatives have a profound impact on a region’s
economic viability, and the center is a valuable and much-needed asset for our region’s sparse inventory of career opportunities. Recognizing the high cost of low educational attainment to the individual, the family and the community, opportunities from this school offer direct paths to well-paying careers that may also allow recipients to work and raise their families closer to home. It also provides meaningful and valuable employment alternatives for high school graduates who are not inclined, or cannot afford, to attend college. Perhaps most importantly, it provides its students, and their families, with the hope of a brighter tomorrow.”
The essence of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center is underscored in its tag-phrase: “Opportunity Lives Here.”
“I grew up in South Boston, and I moved away after college for work,” says Adams. “I remember when times were really good in the area. I want to see us get back to those days. In order to do this, however, we have to have an educated, skilled workforce, and that’s what the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center is working to do.”
For more information, visit the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center website at svhed.org.