KILLEN — The Lauderdale County school district is offering two new career technical programs designed to meet the needs of a more diverse workforce.

The district's Allen Thornton Career Technical Center added an industrial systems program last fall, and will implement a cyber security program this fall with the option for students to earn a short-term certificate.

Gary Dan Williams, the district's career technical director and Allen Thornton principal, said the programs are offered in partnership with Northwest-Shoals Community College, which provides the instructors who teach on the Allen Thornton campus.

All courses earn dual enrollment credit with Northwest-Shoals.

"The industrial systems program has gotten a great start with about 40 students enrolled," Williams said.

Courses in both programs are offered free of charge for students in grades 10th through 12th.

Industrial systems currently has a track of six courses. Cyber security will include nine courses. Both programs include summer courses on the Northwest-Shoals campus.

Williams said the programs align with workforce needs in the Shoals area and in nearby counties, adding that local jobs are currently going unfilled because of the deficit in skilled workers.

"We have to get young people trained to do these jobs because retirees are taking those skills with them when they go," he said. "The jobs are going to be there."

The Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT) and North American Lighting (NAL) provided much of the equipment for the industrial systems program, including two robots from NAL that students have been programming this week for various tasks in their fundamentals of industrial hydraulics and pneumatics class.

Mark Keech, director of operations at NAL said the robots will allow the students to learn programming and mechanical methods used to make the robots move. Such training, he said, is vital to the workforce of the state's industries.

"We fully support what the school system is doing to prepare these students for the future," Keech said. "The need for technically skilled job applicants will continue to grow in our area."

Ed Castile, deputy secretary of commerce for workforce programs and AIDT director, said he considers donations of equipment to the Lauderdale programs an investment in Alabama's future.

"Most of these kids coming out of those programs are going right to work, or furthering their education in a career technical field," he said. "The large number of available jobs in this state are jobs where people need skills beyond just the standards of school. Hands-on skills are critical for those who are going on to work in automation with robotics and such."

That's a promise that students like Moses Smith, a junior at Wilson High School, is banking on. 

Smith, who is enrolled in the industrial systems program, said he's interested in making a career of it.

"I really like the hands-on experience with motors and machines," he said. "I'm not too concerned about finding employment because I believe with very specific training like this the jobs will be there, and I'm not opposed to leaving the area.

"I pretty much have my eye set on a union program," Smith said. "There's definite opportunity if you're serious about your training."

His instructor, Austin Hester, said Smith and other students enjoy the class.

"These classes let the students apply, in a hands-on way, what they've learned in the classroom," Hester said. "The idea is to give them the edge over all the others when it comes time to enter the workforce."

Hester said the classes being offered were specifically chosen so students could take each of them without prerequisites.

"It's a new program and there's a lot of interest with many kids just wanting to see what the program is about," he said. "They get in the classes and really enjoy them."

Lauderdale Superintendent Jon Hatton said the dual enrollment option for students is a draw, and the district is taking full advantage of that opportunity.

The addition of the cyber security program will allow yet another path for students who might not be drawn to the more traditional career technical pathways.

"We have kids that this will be their niche, and we're super excited to be offering these courses," Hatton said. "We're quite certain we can fill at least one class, and possibly even more. The jobs in cyber security are there and they're growing in number."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is building a facility in Huntsville that is expected to employee upwards of 4,000 people.

Cyber security training will be in demand at the facility, but with such training also comes opportunities to work remotely, Williams said.

"These are two areas of workforce preparation that will pay off for those students who take it seriously," he said. "We know students will be employable when they leave us, no doubt about it."

The programs were funded through a $140,000 Appalachian Regional Commission matching grant with legislative appropriations.

State Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, who continues to be at the forefront of advocacy for workforce development in northwest Alabama, said now is the time to bring in those programs.

"I don't want to see (Lauderdale County) get left behind in this effort, so I was just glad to be able to secure some funding for great programming that ultimately will produce young people with skills that will benefit our state," he said.

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