Fierce competition for skilled employees has prompted Wayne Farms and the Alabama Community College System to develop the state’s first accredited workforce development apprenticeship program. The education and industry partnership between Wayne Farms and two area community colleges was developed to focus on hard-to-fill mechanical, electrical and technical positions. The matching programs at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College and Enterprise State Community College will work directly with Wayne Farms to implement the new Mechatronics degree, with students completing a two-year syllabus of classroom instruction in tandem with on-the-job paid technical internships.

According to Matt Rodgers, President of ESCC, “Community colleges play a critical role in workforce development because we must see workforce needs and ensure our students are highly trained and certified to meet those needs.”

Wayne Farms has grown significantly in South Alabama over the last few years, regionally investing more than $300 million in a new feed mill in Ozark and expanded processing complexes in Enterprise and Dothan. The equipment and technology upgrades have transformed the facilities into modern, technology-driven operations, demanding a much deeper skillset than poultry plant maintenance work has traditionally required.

“As this industry has become more sophisticated, we need people with the skills and training necessary to perform in that environment,” said Patricia Powell, Wayne Farms Enterprise HR Manager. “Maintenance positions in a modern facility like ours are hard to staff—the demand is always high.” Wayne Farms Maintenance Manager Roger Allen oversees the industry-education partnership locally for the company, and agreed that highly skilled, technically-oriented maintenance positions are some of the hardest in the industry to fill. “It’s getting harder and harder,” said Allen. “Plants have become very technical—robotics, automation, PLC drives—so we worked with the schools to develop a program that could meet the need better than on-the-job training alone.”

“Today, there is a critical need for employees with technology-focused skills, so we are proud to offer a Mechatronics program that provides essential training in electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering and the opportunity to receive industry-recognized NC3 Certifications. We are excited to join LBW and the Alabama Community College System in partnering with Wayne Farms to not only develop a pipeline that connects our students to successful careers but also fills a need in our local workforce,” continued ESCC’s Rodgers.

The dual-purpose apprenticeship is fully accredited and helps fill the industry demand for qualified applicants while also fulfilling the college system’s role as partner with the state’s Alabama Works economic development program, helping drive regional employment and economic growth. “This actually started after a conversation with Wayne Farms HR representative Patricia Powell,” said Jennifer Hall, Associate Dean of Adult Education, Workforce Development and Continuing Education at LBWCC. “They were being challenged to find technically-qualified employees for these highly-skilled positions.” The discussions that followed validated that initial conversation—partnering on an education and industry apprenticeship program would help meet the high demand for technically-qualified people at Wayne Farms and other area manufacturers, and the community colleges were logical platforms to deliver on that demand. “We’re excited to meet the needs of industry and provide an opportunity for our students to “earn while they learn” through a competency based apprenticeship where they will receive on the job training while pursuing their industrial electronics degree.”

Dr. Chris Cox, LBWCC Interim President, concurred. “Apprenticeships have proven to prepare workers for highly-skilled jobs while meeting the needs of business and industry for many years. I can’t tell you how excited LBWCC is to join ESCC in serving as a state model for an apprenticeship. To my knowledge, this unique partnership is the first time two colleges in Alabama have joined together to sponsor apprentices for a local company. We are grateful for Wayne Farms and the opportunities they provide for our students.”

Ian Campbell, Director of Workforce Development for ESCC explained. “We’re working directly with industry to build a program to fill this need and also gives students opportunities right here—that’s the entire goal,” said Campbell. “A graduate of this apprenticeship program comes to work with skills that make them immediately valuable. With that kind of labor force available, this area is that much more attractive to companies and business locating here.”

Enterprise native and Wayne Farms Enterprise complex manager Eddie Fortner had already been working with local high schools and colleges to identify promising mechanical and technical students who might be interested in a career in the poultry industry, so the program’s creation was a natural evolution. The local colleges toured facilities with the Wayne Farms team, looking at the kinds of tasks and skills required, and identifying skills needed to develop curriculum. The end result was a melding of in-class education and job site paid internships that when completed can lead to apprenticeships and the opportunity for full-time employment at a highly competitive salary. “It gives an opportunity to get highly trained people who are ready to work and know what we need, and it allows local residents the opportunity to work close to home rather than commute or relocate to find employment,” said Fortner.

Both local community colleges are rightfully proud of their role in building the groundbreaking program. “We’re building a constant pipeline of qualified people—people with skills that are relevant now and will be in the future,” said Stephen Schmidt, PR director for ESCC.

As technology becomes more advanced in industry, these “new collar” positions will require skills to match, giving people a career opportunity instead of just a job. High school vocational and technical students interested in the program can inquire through their guidance counselor, and information is also available through both area community colleges.

Source: Wayne Farms LLC