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Energizing A Community In North Carolina

Over the past few decades, Charlotte, NC has increasingly been recognized as a city emblematic of the "New South," replacing textile manufacturing with financial services as the predominant industry. Home to the East Coast operations of Wells Fargo and Bank of America, Charlotte is the largest financial center in the U.S. after New York City. Yet, the recession that began in 2008 hit the city hard, and many manufacturing workers became idled.

Business leaders in the city, including Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, began promoting Charlotte as an "energy center," in the style of Harvard professor Michael Porter’s "industry cluster" concept. The idea is that related industries and educational institutions working cooperatively can lend a region a strategic competitive advantage.

One critical component of the Charlotte energy center was already primed to move. Siemens Energy and Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) had been partners in employee training for more than a decade. When Siemens in March 2010 announced plans to build a $350 million, 400,000-square-foot expansion of its Charlotte steam turbine and generator plant to build and refurbish gas turbines for power generating stations worldwide, the partnership rose to new levels.

Building on a base of 700 employees in March 2010, Siemens has hired an additional 200 hourly workers, as well as 500 engineers and professional managers, for a total current headcount of more than 1,400, with as many as 400 more expected to join by 2014.CPCC trained more than 3,700 people in 670 classes in the last 18 months, including pre-employment training, new hire training and training for incumbent employees who want to improve their skills and move up at the company, says Mary Vickers-Koch, dean of business and industry learning at CPCC.

"We were able to get customized training grants from the State of North Carolina," Vickers-Koch explains. "In addition, Siemens has an apprenticeship program, and we are their partners."

The training partnership doesn’t fit with the traditional notion of a community college, technical college, or the public perception of "labor" in the U.S.—and that’s exactly the point.

"In mechatronics, you have to be very good at mathematics and computers," Vickers-Koch says. "It’s not that old 'labor' perception. And the placement rate is 100 percent." Meanwhile, 90 percent of the hourly pre-employment trainees—many of whom had not taken a test in 20 years or more—have passed a four-week course in blueprint reading and applied technologies, she adds.

The college administered $1.2 million worth of training from September 2010 through February 2012, and will provide the same level of training or more over the next 18 months.

CPCC also offers the Siemens Mechatronic Systems Certification Program, for which the college sent four instructors to the Siemens Technik Akademie-Berlin, who then returned to offer certification to local companies, students, and apprentices.

"The Siemens expansion in Charlotte means more good-paying jobs with a great employer, and another step toward the city becoming an energy hub," Vickers-Koch says. "We definitely have people in the program who would otherwise have left the region in search of work, and we have others who come from all over the country, even other countries."

"The perception is that manufacturing has died," Vickers-Koch says, "but that is not so."