After two and a half years of visioning, planning and working with architects and engineers, Robert Randolph is ready to see the $40 million Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing become a reality.
The 120,000-square-foot facility is the largest in Ozarks Technical Community College’s history, and it is set to open in August 2022.
Randolph was already an advisory committee member for OTC’s manufacturing program when the executive director role came open.
“It seemed like a good fit,” he says. “It’s a field I’m passionate about. I want to see more young people entering manufacturing and the trades. For too many years, we’ve told people, ‘Get a four-year degree or you’ll be poor.’ That’s just not the case. After my master’s degree, I had peers (in the trades) making more than me.”
Randolph says he’s concerned about – and working to change – the fact more people are retiring from manufacturing than starting a career in it.
“There’s a stigma around blue-collar work. When they think of manufacturing, they think of an old, dirty factory, but that’s not what it is,” he says.
OTC officials have stated a goal to increase enrollment in its manufacturing programs by roughly 50% within five years. Randolph says one of the biggest challenges in growing the manufacturing workforce is raising awareness on multiple fronts.
“I think spreading the word to as many students as possible is one approach, but also educating the local educators,” Randolph says, noting one way to reach them is through teacher externships, where they get direct exposure to the manufacturing realm. “The next step is getting beyond the educators and to those students by showing parents how this could impact their students’ lives.”
OTC is reaching even younger generations through weeklong summer manufacturing camps designed for children in grades 7 through 10. The students get a hands-on project they get to design, machine, build, weld and wire themselves.
“Our inaugural year was 2020, and it was an overwhelmingly positive success,” he says.
Randolph says he has many hopes for the future, including growing enrollment in the manufacturing program to ensure local industry demands are met. He also hopes new companies are attracted to the region by the training facility, which can offer custom programs.
“I think this center promises not only training capacity but quality education,” he says.
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