SVHEC, HEC, the College… people refer to the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center by a number of names. For many though, it’s the “best kept secret in Halifax County.”
“Although we’ve been in operation since 1986, I still come across people who haven’t heard of us, or who aren’t aware of the services we provide,” said Dr. Betty H. Adams, SVHEC Executive Director.
Located in two re-purposed tobacco warehouses in downtown South Boston, the SVHEC provides affordable access to higher education and hands-on workforce training. Local community college partners, Danville Community College (DCC) and Southside Virginia Community College (SVCC), provide one-year certificates and two-year degrees in high demand areas including healthcare, business, human services, and college parallel. Four-year partners Old Dominion University and Longwood University provide access to a range of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. “The SVHEC is the only higher education center not located on or near a community college campus. Our partnerships with two and four-year colleges to provide access to everything from a GED to a Ph.D. is part of what makes us so unique,” Adams said.
Recognizing the need for workers to have in-demand training and credentials, the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center also offers a robust workforce training program. Short-term (less than one year), hands-on training in information technology (IT), mechatronics, welding, and Work Ready Foundations is available for adults who want to earn skills and certifications in high demand fields.
“Well-paying technical jobs are going unfilled in the region because of a lack of skilled workers. We help fill the skills gap by focusing on getting people enrolled, trained, and into the workforce in less than a year,” said Adams.
Additionally, all SVHEC workforce training programs can be customized to meet the specific needs of regional employers.
The SVHEC believes that supporting the region’s manufacturing sector is critical for advancing Southern Virginia’s economy. The SVHEC’s Research & Development Center for Advanced Manufacturing & Energy Efficiency (R&D CAMEE) serves as a unique resource for manufacturers and entrepreneurs, connecting them to training, production, proof-of-concept, and commercialization services. R&D CAMEE’s staff leverages their advanced capabilities in Computer Aided Design (CAD) and integrated Computer Aided Machining (CAM) to provide industries and individuals with services that are typically unavailable in rural communities.
“When people visit the SVHEC, they’re amazed that all of this sophisticated technology and varied opportunity exists under one roof. We’ve had people from large metropolitan areas tell us that even they don’t have the assets and resources we do. We’re so fortunate to be in Southern Virginia, and I look forward to us becoming the best told secret in Halifax County and beyond,” Adams concludes with a smile.
The SVHEC’s welding program was launched in 2014 in response to employer requests for more certified welders. The 10-month program provides hands-on training in MIG, TIG, stick and pipe welding, and leads to certification through the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER). NCCER is a portable, third party validated industry credential recognized by employers across the nation.
“Welding@SVHEC is designed to give our trainees the skills and knowledge needed to begin a successful career in the in-demand field of welding,” said Scarlett Brandon, Program/Marketing Coordinator.
Trainees attend class four hours a day, three days per week in the SVHEC’s 10-bay welding lab. Day and evening classes are offered, providing trainees with the flexibility to earn the skills they need while keeping up with family or work commitments. A key feature of the program is the hands-on instruction. Trainees spend 80% of their class time in the lab, learning by doing.
“We’ve had trainees with some informal training and some with absolutely no experience. Our trainers are skilled at working with both groups, and provide the instruction needed to ensure everyone can be successful,” Brandon stated.
“The most valuable aspect of the welding program was the experience of learning to weld when I didn’t have a clue of how to weld when I first signed up,” said Allen Fallen. Fallen successfully completed the Welding@SVHEC program in April 2018, and was hired by Comfort Systems, USA in South Boston, VA. In June 2018, he passed Comfort Systems’ battery of tests to become a certified pipe welder.
As trainees near program completion, they receive job placement assistance including assistance with resume writing and interview skills. They also have an opportunity to participate in a mini-job fair. “Our job doesn’t end with training. Our ultimate goal is to see everyone successfully employed. We’re successful when our trainees are successful,” said Brandon.
Virginia is consistently ranked as one of the top five states for employing IT workers. Once upon a time IT jobs were concentrated in Richmond and Northern Virginia, but today a growing number of these positions can be found in Southern Virginia. The Microsoft data center in Boydton, VA is just one example, having expanded five times and created more than 250 jobs since 2010. An increasing number of people employed as technicians in that data center are being trained just a few miles away at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center’s IT Academy.
Launched in 2015, the IT Academy (ITA) provides short-term, hands-on training to prepare individuals to work as skilled IT technicians. The core curriculum, Foundations for IT Professionals, is a four month program providing training in essential skills including PC and Mac hardware repair, installation and configuration of operating systems, and server configuration.
ITA learning spaces include a hardware repair center and working datacenter lab. Hands-on lab activities are all designed to simulate the work environment. Before completing the program, trainees test for their third-party, industry recognized CompTIA A+ and Server+ certifications.
In addition to the core Foundations curriculum, the IT Academy offers advanced training in networking and cybersecurity. Courses are hands-on and lead to CompTIA Network + and Security+ certifications.
To date, ITA has 143 program completers who have earned more than 140 industry-recognized CompTIA certifications. One of those completers is Donna Conde who was unable to find work after moving from New Jersey to Halifax County in 2014. After nearly 18 months of unsuccessful job searches, she heard about the IT Academy and enrolled. Just one month after completing ITA’s Foundations curriculum, Conde was offered a position at the DXC/Perspecta datacenter in Clarksville, VA.
Like Conde, Abdullah Bell also struggled to find employment before enrolling in the IT Academy. Just weeks after completing the program in May 2018, Bell was offered a position at the Global Center for Automotive Performance Simulation. “With the information I learned from the IT Academy I now have multiple paths to kick-start a career in the IT industry,” he said.
Mechatronics pronounced “Meck-A-Tronics” is a strange word that could easily be the name of a character in the Transformers movie series. Instead, it’s the name of an innovative program preparing trainees for in-demand jobs available throughout Southern Virginia.
Mechatronics is defined as a combination of electrical, mechanical, fluid power, robotics and computer systems technology used to control a process. The SVHEC’s Mechatronics training program provides trainees with an understanding of the individual systems and how they work together. SVHEC trainers use a “systems-based approach” which looks at the integrated (or mechatronic) system as a whole instead of first focusing on the individual systems and later figuring out how it all fits together.
“For example, instead of showing you a motor, then a transmission, then the braking system and eventually saying ‘let’s talk about a car’ we start with the complete car, talk about how everything works together as one system, and then we start looking at the components that make up the system,” said SVHEC Mechatronics Program Leader Ricky Gordon.
The systems based approach was developed by multinational corporation Siemens, and has been used to produce technicians who can find efficiently troubleshoot problems resulting in less machine down time, more productivity, and increased profits.
For Eric Thomas, SVHEC Mechatronics Level 1 program completer, the benefits of pursuing mechatronics training were immediate. “I came into the program as a maintenance tech, and within two months I was the head maintenance tech on my shift. I hadn’t done much with PLCs (programmable logic controls), and the mechatronics program was a big help in becoming more familiar with PLCs and being able to better troubleshoot them,” he said.
“The program has helped me to see past the problem and be able to analyze and troubleshoot a lot quicker. It’s helped me become a stronger employee,” said Sonya Wingate. Wingate is an employee at Danville manufacturer Essel Propack and completed a customized Mechatronics training the SVHEC developed specifically for Essel Propack maintenance technicians.
Although the SVHEC’s mechatronics program uses the Siemens systems-based approach, and offers the Siemens Mechatronic Systems Certification, training participants gain the skills needed to work in any industry and with any brand of equipment. Because of this, a growing number of regional industries are taking advantage of SVHEC’s customizable mechatronics training. Employers tell us what they need, and we listen. All the training is relevant so they start seeing results right away,” Gordon said.
SVHEC offers three levels of Mechatronics training, each leading to the internationally recognized Siemens Mechatronic Systems Certification. Successful trainees are prepared to identify and correct malfunctions in manufacturing equipment, and are qualified for a wide range of careers including maintenance technician, electrical/electronics technician, and electrical assistant.
R&D Center for Advanced Manufacturing & Energy Efficiency
The SVHEC’s R&D Center for Advanced Manufacturing & Energy Efficiency (R&D CAMEE) connects industry, small businesses and entrepreneurs with research and development, proof of concept, and limited production runs to support commercialization and economic development.
With more than $5M in software and equipment, the hi-tech facility serves as one of
Southern Virginia’s only working prototype labs. Having a prototype lab means entrepreneurs and regional industries have access to the technology, expertise, and skills needed to advance an idea and bring new concepts to market. Just one example of this is R&D CAMEE’s work with Stewart Topp—owner of Topp Line Incorporated and inventor of the Blind Stapler tool.
In 2017, Mr. Topp reached out to R&D CAMEE with a sketch for a unique stapling tool, the Blind Stapler, that could potentially revolutionize the cabinet making industry. R&D CAMEE’s staff leveraged their expertise in Computer Aided Design (CAD) to engineer a dynamic, 3-D model based on Topp’s initial primitive sketch. From there, staff used their advanced capabilities in integrated Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Machining (CAD/CAM) to produce a fully functioning prototype. Stewart Topp was able to use technical information derived from the prototype to apply for a patent from the U.S. Patent Office. “Without the R&D Center we couldn’t have built this tool,” Topp said.
R&D CAMEE is also fortunate to count world-renowned piano craftsman Steinway & Sons as a client. Steinway & Sons engaged R&D CAMEE to program its new Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) routers to complete the post-foundry process machining on six of its grand piano frames and all its upright frames. Throughout 2018, R&D CAMEE staff worked closely with Steinway & Sons to design, test, and refine the required CNC programs. R&D CAMEE’s work has allowed Steinway & Sons to increase piano production, increase sales, and implement modern manufacturing techniques to better function within the world of digital manufacturing. “The CNC programming support that we received from SVHEC and R&D CAMEE Associate Director Kevin Chrystie was of high quality and reflected a keen understanding of our manufacturing requirements,” said Andy Horbachevsky, Vice-President of Manufacturing for Steinway & Sons.
R&D CAMEE’s expert staff leverages decades of industry experience, technical knowledge, and a combination of sophisticated hardware and software assets to connect regional industries and entrepreneurs with the resources needed to gain a competitive edge in the global marketplace.