Staff Writer Damon Cline sat down with Terry D. Elam, president of Augusta Technical Institute, to talk about economic development and technical education:
Q: As a member of various economic development organizations in the area, what do you think is the biggest challenge in bringing new jobs to the community?
A: Our main challenge is to make sure we are getting traffic coming through that will just look at us and give us a chance to make a presentation. So much of what happens in economic development for site selection starts on a computer. If your demographic is not right on the computer, then you're not going to make the cut. But once you get people in the community, you have as good a chance as anybody to land the project.
Work force development is a main challenge, it's a challenge of most metro areas. You've got people who are unskilled and our challenge is to make sure we have systems in place that will allow us to train these people rapidly so they can then fill the jobs that potentially would come here.
Q: You grew up in south Augusta and continue to live there today. Has Augusta always been divided geographically?
A: No, that's a fairly recent thing. When I was a kid, Augusta was the city. The county was so sparsely populated that as the suburbs grew, the demographics of those areas changed. There's all kinds of politics involved, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about that.
What I do worry about is that the economic opportunity in this city is not divided by geographic areas. What I'm concerned about is why there's not a decent place to eat in all these communities, why there's no decent places to stay if you have guests come to visit you.
Q: Do you think Augusta Tech is perceived well in the community?
A: I think it's a good perception, but it's something we're always concerned about. We do a lot of imaging. If you notice a lot of the ads we run are more aimed at a broader message of investing in education, the kinds of things we think people want to hear. When it comes to selling our school, our programs, that's a different type of campaign.
I think our image has changed. It has improved. I think people in the community recognize who we are. The issue still stands, though, of how many of those folks who say great things about us will send their kids to us. Without hesitation I will tell you that number is increasing.
Q: Are you still having to show people Augusta Tech offers more than just certificates in welding and engine repair?
A: Probably the perception that we're having to fight is that we don't offer things like welding certificates anymore. Because we do offer degrees, there's a group of people who think we've given up other things. We didn't give up anything; we added. Obviously we have dropped courses based on performance needs, but we have not dropped a whole segment of courses.
We are no longer just a "trade school." I think people see us as a center for technology. They see us as a place where you can come to jump start a great career or come back and start over.
People understand there are lots of different ways to come through our school. There's something called "reverse articulation" where students who have finished four-year degrees are going to technical colleges and technical institutes.
Q: Why? To pick up the skills they missed?
A: To pick up the skills they need to go to work. They enjoyed their four-year degree, but what they really want to do in life calls for a technical skill. Two out of the four finalists for the GOAL program (Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership) here on campus are graduates of four-year institutions. They both said they enjoyed every moment of (their liberal arts education) but now they're going to do what they want to do from an occupational standpoint.
Q: Do you think technical schools will be more and more in-demand?
A: Tech education plays a vital role because 20 years ago, if you graduated from college, you got a pretty good job. If you graduated high school, you could go to work and be trained on what was then the latest technology and be fairly successful. But the job market between what's needed at the four-year college level and that entry level job -- those jobs in between, the technical jobs -- have gotten more sophisticated.
I think our role is to get more folks to participate in our style of education because the job market is going to dictate you have those technical skills, whether its a PLC (process logic control panel) operator or a someone running an injection molding machine. The amount of technical skills needed is going to increase tremendously.
Q: How do market forces dictate what you teach here.
A: We dropped brick masonry 15 years ago because we were having poor job placement. We went through a rather tough depression during the early 80s, the housing market was down, the commercial market was down. But now there's a shortage of masons. A lot of them are no longer in business because they've aged. So we're going to start offering a masonry certificate again. As a matter of fact, it's been approved to start.
Q: What do you feel you've brought to Augusta Tech during your short time as president.
A: First of all, I will give credit to the 20 years Mr. (Jack) Patrick led this institution. I think hiring me was one of his great choices. I think many of us here were part of his success. But I don't look at it as what he did versus what I did. When I became president, my job was to continue the vision that we would offer the best in technical education and support the economic development in this community. We have looked to a lot of new staff to take us into the next millennium. There's so many good things going on that it becomes common business practice after a while.
Q: Does the institution have a weakness?
A: Probably one area, and this is statewide, has to do with managing the enrollment coming in and strategies to obtain additional funding. The only other weakness that I would say about this institution and other institution is keeping up with technology. It changes so rapidly that the computers delivered today are very well obsolete in a short period of time.
Q: What made you want to become an educator?
A: I guess early on I enjoyed helping people by simply giving directions as a kid. It's rather natural to be honest with you. The bug just got in me. I started off as a classroom teacher in 1971 at Richmond Academy with an all boys class. Most of them were close to my age because I was only 21 years old. But I'll say there were some real successful people to have come out of that experience that I call friends today.
Q: Who are your role models?
A: Obviously my parents. Roscoe Williams, who retired from Augusta State. He taught me that teaching was honorable. In the community, I had a wonderful teacher at age 10. His name is Lee Beard. You know him as Commissioner Lee Beard. He was also my high school counselor. He probably taught me as much about life and being successful as anybody. He really motivated me to work hard in school. The people he worked with during that period at the elementary school I was at, a lot of successful people came out of that. (Superior Court Judge) Carl Brown, for instance, was a student there.
Q: Many teachers believe its getting harder to educate young people. What do you think?
A: I see a disconnect. I think young people are much more disconnected from the mainstream. My generation and the kids I started teaching in the early 70s, we wanted to be mainstream. They wanted the same things we wanted. The world wasn't nearly as complicated. The only divisive thing we had going was a war, but you could pretty much know how your friend stood on that. And if you didn't agree with him, he could still be your friend.
Young people today, they're distracted by a myriad of things. There's a lot more media presence in their lives. I grew up on two television stations. Today, children have 60 channels and a TV in every room. It's a lot harder to get their attention. Their world is their little surroundings.
My world had to be larger because what was around me wasn't that exciting, to be honest with you. I knew what was going on in the world when I was 20 years old. I could tell you who the president of Indonesia was simply because we had to read more. We read the newspaper. I'm not saying that as a plug for the newspaper, but its true -- kids today get sound bites.
I think schools are having to teach people, both young people and adults, things that were taken for granted. In the past we've had to teach work ethics, which is something that we assumed people would already have.
Institution: Augusta Technical Institute
Locations: Augusta (main campus), Thomson and Waynesboro
Annual operating budget: $18.4 million
Employees: 225 full time, 250 part time.
Students: 5,000 in Richmond, Columbia, McDuffie, Burke and Lincoln counties
Programs: Offers more than 50 associate degree, diploma and technical certificate programs. It also administers economic development programs.
History: Started in 1961 as Augusta Area Vocational-Technical School by the Georgia and Richmond County Boards of Education. It merged with the Richmond Area Vocational School in 1966 to form Augusta Area Technical School. It moved to its current location in 1981 and became known as Augusta Technical Institute in 1987.