The courses offered in higher education these days extend far beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Sure, there are still plenty of options for such core classes as accounting and computer programming. But there also are quite a few fringe subjects out there: “Introduction to Beekeeping” at Temple University, “The Physics of Star Trek” at Santa Clara University, “The History of Ice Cream” at Greendale Community College.
OK, that last one is from the television sitcom “Community,” but you get the idea. It seems like there’s a college course somewhere for nearly every type of job or interest. You can learn to be a fast-food manager at McDonald’s Hamburger University in Chicago, attend Clown College in California or prepare for the ultimate dead-end job at Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Atlanta.
The state of Alabama doesn’t have any offerings quite that, uh, unusual, but there are several classes in the state that stand out above (and in one case, below) the fray. Here is a quick look at three of them:
Lineworker Program at Bishop State Community College
There is an area on the Bishop State campus in Mobile called the pole farm. It is a small patch of land containing more than a dozen power poles. While it might look like some sort of abstract art project, this actually is the hands-on training site for the school’s Lineworker Program.
The program was established early in 2020 by Alabama Power, which wanted a southern site to complement its primary training center in Calera. Nearly 400 people applied for the inaugural 23-person class, and all 23 graduates found jobs, according to David Felton, dean of workforce and economic development at Bishop State.
The nine-week program includes math and science classwork, with an emphasis on the fundamentals of electricity. But perhaps the most important aspect is the ability to work at heights, which is where the pole farm comes in.
“They can go out there and climb the poles, use bucket trucks to access the poles, and string cables from pole to pole,” Felton says. “It’s very interactive as far as being hands-on training.”
After an initial four-hour instructional session, students are taken to the pole farm, where they must show they are capable of climbing a pole before being allowed to continue the class.
“The pole has a harness system with a retractable cable that keeps them from falling,” Felton says. “They have to get to the top of the pole and pull off their work belt and put it around the pole while keeping their feet on the pegs. Then they have to lean back and clap their hands five times before coming back down the pole.
“That tests their physical capabilities, and also gives them the opportunity to understand what it’s like to work at heights and to make sure they can really do that. Because some people can’t. You have to understand that this is a physical job, where you’re working outside in adverse conditions like cold, heat and rain.”
Graduates of the program are not required to work for Alabama Power, though many do. Felton says some members of the initial class also were hired by Mississippi Power and the Pike Electric Corp. in Georgia.
“This is a great example of a partnership between an employer and a community college, and how it can ensure a steady pipeline of employees,” Felton says. “The people who complete this program then have the skills to go work for any utility company.”
Mine Technology Program at Bevill State Community College
Bevill State has provided training to the mining industry since 1975. The program is considered so important to the state that in 1985 the Alabama Legislature officially established it as The Alabama Mining Academy.
This training is for much more than just traditional coal mining. It covers all aspects of the industry — underground and surface — including mines for clay, rock, gravel and quarry.
The school handles both initial certification and annual refresher courses, along with the state’s mine foreman exam and the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s electrical exam.
The classwork covers a wide variety of topics, ranging from basic mining terminology to mine safety and even rescue events. For Alabama-based companies that have operations in other states, instructors will travel to those sites for training as well. As a result, approximately 10,000 people completed some sort of training through the program in 2019, says Ken Russell, director of workforce solutions at Bevill State. COVID-19 cut the numbers somewhat in 2020.
“Anybody who goes on mine property is required to have training, including contractors and vendors,” Russell says. “We work with all of them.”
One of the program’s most innovative teaching tools is a 3D simulator, which enables students to engage in real-life situations without the real-life danger involved. Various operating conditions can be set up through the simulator, which is comparable to those used by the military and commercial airlines for pilot training.
“We really go into detail on everything you can think of, and then they do the work hands-on in the simulated lab,” Russell says. “We have a mine fan where we can teach ventilation controls. They can set roof supports. We have an operating beltline. They can build brattices (partitions). They can do all the things that they would actually do while working a mine.”
The program is set to expand in 2021 with the help of $950,000 in state funding for the construction of a facility to provide training for longwall mining. This form of coal mining uses machinery that cuts through a wall of coal in a single slice. Russell says it gobbles up the coal “like a Pacman,” running a back-and-forth pattern until the entire longwall is cut out.
“We’re real excited about that. There’s so much we can do with that as far as training,” Russell says of the creation of a mock longwall, which should be completed before next fall. “It’s important, because longwall is a method of extracting coal that is really good for the deep mines and metallurgical coal. Those mines are primarily used for steel making, so they should be around for years to come.”
Alabama Aviation College
The sky isn’t the limit, but it is the goal for workers seeking an aviation career. The Alabama Aviation College is the only aviation maintenance program in the state. AAC programs are offered through Enterprise State Community College at both the Andalusia and Ozark branches, as well as at Coastal Alabama Community College in Mobile.
There are a total of 30 courses in three programs designed to teach all aspects of aircraft maintenance. The powerplant technology program focuses on the construction and operation of aircraft propellers and turbine engines. Airframe technology involves maintenance and repair of such aircraft structures as sheet metal, hydraulics and braking systems. And the avionics technology program concentrates on aircraft navigation and landing systems.
Enrollment numbers have increased steadily in recent years, from 245 in 2017 to nearly 400 in 2019. “As part of the economic development of the community, we exist to train a skilled workforce ready for employment,” says Stan Smith, director of AAC. “My vision is that every student of the AAC has a job waiting on them upon graduation.”