When Regina Cook, Administrative Officer for Training Solutions for the School of Career and Corporate Training at Virginia Western Community College, met with Steel Dynamics regarding Mechatronics courses, she didn’t realize the educational partnership would balloon into a program that serves as a model for other companies in the Roanoke Valley region.
Steel Dynamics and faculty from Virginia Western initially developed classes that could be taught at the Steel Dynamics facility. This past summer, they sent about a dozen employees to campus for classes, and that on-campus experience in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) building prompted Steel Dynamics leaders to want an even greater immersive partnership with the College.
That experience has since evolved into an employee recruitment and development program for Steel Dynamics, which is one of the largest domestic steel producers and metal recyclers in the U.S., with more than 400 Roanoke employees. Three new full-time operations positions were created, offering candidates a combined employment and educational package. This fall, Steel Dynamics will send four employees to begin classes toward an AAS degree in Mechatronics. Three of these students are newly hired employees, and one student is an existing Steel Dynamics employee who heard about the opportunity and was offered the same benefit as the new recruits. All four are full-time employees with benefits and work shifts designed around their school schedules. Steel Dynamics will pay tuition and fees for these student employees.
“We believe this is a really good investment in our people and our future,” said Derrick Walls, Melt/Cast Manager at Steel Dynamics. “Investing in your employees pays dividends.”
The company has very low turnover, Walls noted, but they are expecting several retirements over the next few years, so this is a way to fill their pipeline with skilled workers. “From a business standpoint, the payback is developing our people with critical skills that will benefit them and Steel Dynamics upon their graduation,” he added.
Mechatronics professor Dr. David Berry, who was one of the instructors for the summer classes, helped shape the arrangement with Steel Dynamics’ leadership. In addition to sending their employees to classes at the College, the company is donating equipment and partnering with the department to create new training stands that will be used in the STEM building labs. “We work with a lot of companies on internship and apprenticeship ideas, but what Steel Dynamics has done is phenomenal. I hope other companies are inspired to do something equally revolutionary with the resources the College has to offer,” Berry said.
Partnerships between the College and local industries is what Amy White, Dean of the STEM program at Virginia Western, hoped would evolve with the new state-of-the-art STEM facility, equipment and programming. “It is inspiring to see a local industry supporting their workforce and utilizing the spectrum of opportunity that is offered at Virginia Western,” said White. “We hope to continue this relationship with Steel Dynamics and be able to use it as a model for others. As companies struggle with employment needs, it is great to be part of the solution.”
From an economic development standpoint, the quick collaboration and unity created between Virginia Western Community College and Steel Dynamics is remarkable and serves as a template for other employers, according to Marc Nelson, Director of Economic Development for the City of Roanoke. “Virginia Western is a real workforce partner that is consistently demonstrating what it means to be nimble and reactive to the needs in our community,” said Nelson. “This is definitely a great model for others to plug into what the College is offering while providing development opportunities to their workforce.”
Partnering with different employers and industries throughout the region is Cook’s full-time focus in the College’s Career and Corporate Training division. Cook and her team work closely with local employers to understand their needs and fully customize educational programming to meet them, grounded in best practices in both instructional design and for the adult learner.
“We are fervently filling needs across the Valley for an array of companies and organizations, across industries ranging from manufacturing to health care to government agencies deploying programs at the client site. Courses include Mechatronics Fundamentals, Supervision and Leadership, Change Management and more,” Cook said.
In Steel Dynamics’ case, their focus on skill development pairs well with the College’s offerings. “Steel Dynamics is hyper-focused on fostering skills, fulfilling strategic objectives and increasing employee engagement and retention, while we are providing programs to support all of those initiatives,” said Cook. “I am elated to witness and fully support the convergence of industry and academia.”