By Michael Williams
The biggest shock I ever had in my life was when I was about to undergo throat surgery in my local hospital, and two of my former students appeared wordlessly in the waiting area and began slowly wheeling me back into the operating room. Already nervous, I began racking my brain, frantically trying to remember what grade they earned in my class. I hope it was an “A,” I thought. More importantly, I hoped they had earned good grades in their nursing classes. I didn’t want a carelessly handled scalpel to get dropped during surgery and find its way into one of my organs.
I need not have worried. They were competent, friendly, and highly motivated students, and their easy banter with me on the way into the operating room soon alleviated my nervousness. I was among friends.
And I shouldn’t have been surprised because I had already recognized several students during check in. Two of the nurses in admissions were former students, and the clinical nursing instructor was my colleague at the technical college. The maintenance worker in the hallway troubleshooting the elevator? I had taught him a few semesters back. He was a recent graduate of our industrial maintenance program.
It took some getting used to—seeing my students everywhere like this. When I previously taught in the university system, I had often wondered whether my students found success after college, but in the technical college system, it was self-evident, particularly in a small town in Georgia.
The automotive technicians at the local mechanics shop had graduated from our program. If I called Windstream to troubleshoot my phone or internet service, I could be confident that one of our former telecommunications students would be on the service call. Former students cut my hair at local salons, and if I went to the bank, I would surely recognize the teller from our Business Technology program. I was the only English instructor on campus, so all of the students at our college had to take my class. In the course of a few short years, as more and more of my students graduated, I became the biggest celebrity in town. Everywhere I went, I saw former students employed.
Later, when I implemented the apprenticeship program at our college, the point was brought home to me in an even bigger way as I began to visit local companies and saw how essential our students were to manufacturing. Welders were building cargo trailers and repairing railroad tankers. Machinists were manufacturing parts for sports cars. Maintenance technicians were programming robots and automating assembly lines at local plants.
Technical colleges are vastly important to workforce development across our nation. Every day, in every state, in every city, thousands of Americans use technical education to rise out of poverty, join the middle class, and forge a lasting career. And I’m positive that if you do the math, you’ll find the greatest number of these success stories occur in cities. But if you really want to see it in action with your own eyes, you need to come to small town Georgia and let me show you around.
Michael Williams is the Dean for Academic Affairs for Technical and Industrial Programs. He is also the author of “Rivers, Rogues, and Timbermen – in the novels of Brainard Cheney.”