Over the past 20 years, the school has also become a major player in the local economy by providing jobs in both the health sciences and in the manufacturing fields as well as providing employment training for local industries. This is particularly true with the Opelika-Auburn area.
“If you look at all the factories that have moved to this area in the last 25 years, their technicians typically come from Southern Union,” said Todd Shackett, President of Southern Union State Community College.
For those who are looking to grow and make a change in their life, Southern Union might just be the place to start. The industrial market is in need of trained tradesmen and women, particularly in East Alabama. The Opelika Chamber of Commerce recently said that it had over 1,000 job openings just in Opelika alone.
Lori Huguley, Opelika director of economic development, confirms this.
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“You name it, it’s pretty much needed,” Huguley said. “Industrial maintenance, welding, robotics, mechatronics; there’s just a wide, wide array of opportunities right now.”
It’s these opportunities that Southern Union seeks to fill. With training for industrial fields such as mechatronics and machining among others, the school aims to open the doors for students to move on to do great things in great paying jobs
“Technical and trade jobs are usually some of the higher-paying jobs,” Huguley said. “So if you have someone that can make higher wages, then that increases their income and so they’re able to maybe buy another house, spend more in the community. It just increases their quality of life.”
That quality of life can improve pretty quick, they say.
“We have students coming out of here with a two-year degree that are making $75- $80,000 a year right off the bat at 20 years old, six figures by the time they’re 24-25,” Shackett said. “That’s unusual, even going to a four year school.”
Adam Baker, 32, is just one Southern Union success story. He moved to Alabama from South Carolina in 2018 to escape a life of drugs and to better himself. Baker graduated from Southern Union in May 2022 with his Associates in Advanced Manufacturing Technology. He is now employed as an industrial maintenance technician with WestRock in Lanett. He went through Southern Union’s program and learned about mechatronics. Baker said he spent between $20,000 and $25,000 on his degree.
“My first year out of school, I’m not shy about saying I will make over six figures this year,” Baker said. “And to be able to go from not making that to making that with such a small investment in monetary value, I think it’s great.”
Mechatronics is essentially a multi-craft technical field that teaches students about industrial robotics. Those in the field — mechatronics technicians or industrial maintenance technicians — are trained in the electrical, mechanical, and programming sides of robotics.
“Mechatronics is basically Industrial Maintenance Technology,” Baker said. “It’s the new fancy way of saying the term maintenance, but I think that’s a good thing.”
Right now, there is a critical need for mechatronics technicians. Industry has made leaps and bounds over the past 15 years in robotics. Simple tasks people once did like picking up pallets is now done by robots instead. But People are still needed to take care of those robots. WestRock, for example, has 13 robots being used in its factory in Lanett. Companies as varied as Baxter, Rapa, and West Fraser are using them as well.
This change in industrial production has meant local municipalities have had to work closely with Southern Union to provide updated training for potential employees.
“In this market over the last 10 years we’ve really seen a progression of more complex machinery, which in turn, requires the person trained to understand more,” said Amy Brabham, director of workforce development for the City of Auburn. “It was a shift in a training mindset to stop training in specific areas and give someone a broader view so that they had all of those things under their belt before they graduated.”
Mike Williams, a maintenance supervisor at WestRock, sees a lot of opportunities for young mechatronics technicians. He sits on Southern Union’s Advisory Committee for Industrial Maintenance.
“There is a tremendous opportunity,” Williams said. “Once you get into this program and you get your teeth sunk in and know you want to do it, there’s so many opportunities out here. All these plants up and down this interstate, I guarantee they could have a job in two days.”
Apprenticeships and internships are common for Southern Union students entering into manufacturing fields. According to Shackett, students that go through these programs have a 100% rate of entering the job field after graduation.
The F.A.M.E. on the Plains program (Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education) is probably one of the most well-known. The program allows a consortium of local manufactures including WestRock, Baxter and others to work with Southern Union in making sure perspective mechatronics employees meet their needs.
“F.A.M.E. on the Plains is led by business industry,” Shackett said. “We facilitate it, but they run it, meaning that they have a group of companies that discuss the needs of the program. Every company has its own specific needs, but there’s a common cluster of skills that all of them need.
“That’s where they get their on the job training and understand all those different aspects and elements of their industry, which is different than another industry that might have the same students in the class,” he added.
Mechatronics, however, isn’t the only big job field right now. Industries in the area are also looking for machinists. Companies as varied as G.E. Aviation, Regal Rexnord, and Sodecia are all in need of machinists.
“In the Auburn-Opelika area there are a lot of job opportunities within machining,” said Eric Sewell, director of technical education at Southern Union. “That program is definitely increasing in popularity, and I think a lot of that is due to the local job need of companies.”
At its core, machining is taking a block of metal and cutting it down into mechanical parts. The job is particularly important in automotive and aviation industries. A student that goes through Southern Union’s Machine Shop Technology program can build a solid career machining parts for industries in the Opelika-Auburn area. Pay rates can start out between $20 and $25 an hour.
Joseph Scarborough, 22, graduated from Southern Union in May 2022 with his associates degree in Machine Shop Technology. He said he has always had an interest in fabrication and knew he didn’t want a regular desk job. Scarborough is now employed full-time as a machinist with Regal Rexnord in Auburn making drive couplings.
“If you’re a machinist, then you’re going to be setting up parts from scratch on lathes and mills from raw stock and turning out a finished in tolerance part,” Scarborough said of his job. “We turn a lot of stuff from raw bar stock. It’ll come in as just a round chunk of steel like a cylinder and it will exit your area as a finished part.”
Chip Stallings, a production supervisor at Regal Rexnord, says the company has a large need for machinists right now.
“Our facility has nine current machinist openings that have not yet been filled for expanding business as well as traditional staffing turnover,” Stallings said. “Regal Rexnord is certainly not alone in finding qualified personnel for these highly skilled positions.”
Southern Union is helping to fill these positions through its Registered Apprenticeship Program. The apprenticeship program is how Scarborough got his start with Regal Rexnord. By taking an apprenticeship, Scarborough was able to step into his field after just one semester at Southern Union and get hands on experience as a machinist while completing his degree. After he graduated, he chose to stay with the company.
“If you’re interested in just staying there, then you can stay there and work your way up for literally as long as you want to,” Scarborough said. “If you’re really determined and you’re a go-getter then they will take notice.”
Stallings also speaks highly of the apprenticeship program.
“Southern Union’s apprenticeship program has and will continue to be a valuable resource of reaching potential job applicants,” Stallings said. “The students we have seen who have come through the Machine Technology program at Southern Union enter the workforce with the skillset needed to succeed and excel in the machining industry.”
It’s these kind of relationships with businesses that Southern Union aims to foster. It’s a bit of an adaptive symbiotic relationship: Not only does Southern Union provide trained employees, but they also listen when businesses tell them what they need.
Through advisory committees, such as the one for industrial maintenance that Williams sits on, Southern Union is able to react directly to new industrial needs.
“We just discuss the curriculum and anything that we want to introduce that’s new that will be beneficial to the students,” Williams said. “We can have a discussion around: is that important enough to put in the curriculum or is there some other approach that we could cover to go along with other things they currently have.”
“We make sure we have advisory committees for almost all of our programs,” Shackett said. “It’s where industry and the customer — which is these businesses — tell us what they need in a graduate. We enhance our curriculum to make sure that our students come out relevant and ready.”
Southern Union’s cooperation doesn’t just end with its students though. They also provide employment training for existing companies. When national businesses with local footprints such as West Fraser or Briggs & Stratton need to skill up their associates, they will often send them to Southern Union. According to Sewell, the school does all West Fraser’s millwright and electrical training east of the Mississippi River.
“They send people to us for training just about every week throughout the year, somewhere between 10 to 30 folks,” Sewell said. “It’s more about long term partnerships with these companies and being able to, as they see the needs that they have, to reach out to us.”
Shackett agrees with this philosophy.
“We don’t develop the training on our own, we develop in conjunction,” he said. “Then they would either send their employees here or we’d send an instructor to their location. And we go over the training, typically a week, and then there’s some sort of certification process at the end.”
Sewell said when new businesses come into Auburn or Opelika, the cities are ready to work with Southern Union. The Department of Commerce helps new businesses initially. When benefits run out, Southern Union steps in to partner as well.
“At that point, that’s where the community college stands in,” Sewell said. “They get everything started up and going and then we’re here as a long term partner to be able to help and support.”
It’s a process that Brabham sees as a positive for when new businesses do come to town.
“We will know how many employees they need in a certain sector,” Brabham said. “We meet with Southern Union, number one to see if we can fill those needs, and number two, see if we need to skill up folks that might be underemployed or not have those skills.”
And providing those skills to students is ultimately what Southern Union aims to be about.
“They provide a great product,” Huguley said, “which would be a student that would be trained for going into work in one of our companies.”