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RCC puts tech on display

WHITE CITY — It's finals week at Rogue Community College, so what better time for the state Higher Education Coordination Commission to review the Table Rock Campus's technical education operations.

Three members of the governor's higher education policy staff toured electrical, mechanical, diesel, nursing and emergency medical training centers Wednesday as part of a yearly visit to each of Oregon's college and university campuses.

What they found was a cluster of programs bursting at the seams awaiting construction of RCC's 11,800-square-foot High Tech Center across the street. It was evident, as well, that board, administrators and staff know they're close to restoring occupational vitality to a region that has not yet fully transitioned away from the timber industry.

RCC President Cathy Kemper-Pelle referenced recent budget-balancing staff cuts during her introductory remarks, while pointing out the mentoring relationships that are a strength in technology training. The region's growing advanced-level manufacturing community of 440 companies — often with fewer than 100 employees — is generally overlooked as a career pursuit because the products and components aren't necessarily bought and sold locally. They're part of what economic developers and economists call the traded sector — goods and services traded outside the region, sometimes globally.

"People don't see those products on the shelf and they don't understand what's made here," Kemper-Pelle said. "So you drive around and see all these big metal buildings, and nobody knows what's going on inside them. That's been one of our big challenges, to get high school and college students inside those buildings to see what's happening."

Electronics instructor Dave McKeen grabbed an electric guitar, turned on an amp and began the opening rifts of "Stairway to Heaven" for his visitors. He and fellow instructor Ann Trausch have both built guitars as part of the National Science Foundation STEM Guitar Project.

Now their students, who also build solar charging systems for RCC's Chevy Volt driver's education vehicle, are able to build their own guitars.

"If you bought all this stuff separately it's about $450," McKeen said. "The kits from the NSF are about $157; the price of a textbook really."

Building the guitars involves math, such as determining the cube-root of 12 for the spacing between frets.

"I've played guitars since I was 11 and had no idea about the math behind it — the math to get the neck and nut to the right scale length so this is an octave," McKeen said, producing a high tone. "It is not an accident, it's got to be right."

Over in the manufacturing and engineering technology department, Steve Foster was surrounded by the same equipment found at Erickson Aircrane, Pacific Tool & Gauge, Aviation Associates and Sweed Machinery.

"This is exactly what the students will see when they get out of our program and go to work in industry," Foster said.

The same is true for robotics, he said.

Diesel students are learning to deal with latest computer-aided engines that produce 2,000-horsepower, versus the 450-horsepower engines of the past.

Ultimately, like every other higher education institution in the state, the two-year college serving Jackson and Josephine counties desires a greater financial commitment from Salem.

HECC makes recommendations to the governor, whose staff reviews the findings and submits a budget to the Legislature.

"Our biggest opportunity to really influence the process is developing an agency budget," said Patrick Crane, community college and workforce director for the commission. "We truly try to understand what the true cost of education is. We know Oregon is underfunded compared to other states for what it really costs to educate a student."

He said RCC faces the same enrollment pressures as colleges everywhere when economic times are good and jobs beckon.

"As the labor market gets better, keeping students in the program is a tougher challenge," Crane said. "We, of course, want students to complete their studies. It's good for them, it's good for their long-term employment opportunities. But when you have a choice between earning more this month and finishing your degree that can be a tough decision."

He said RCC has done well in developing good relationships with employers, citing how the school worked its way through initial issues with Caterpillar to the point where the company is eager to get its graduates.

"In a less urban setting, you have less density of students, so you have to build better relationships with the existing high schools and existing employers," Crane said. "One of the things I heard today is that there are 440 manufacturers in this area, that's a lot of relationships to maintain over a pretty big geographic area. Rogue Community College makes commitments to local employers, tries to work with them to solve problems and then delivers on them.

Crane said the passage of a $20 million bond last year for the RCC High Tech Center bond and other facility improvements was a substantial achievement.

"It's not an easy thing to do," he said. "The important thing is making the best use of that money, because it doesn't come around that often. Going forward, you try and stay flexible, because we know job markets grow and compress. They might need a ton of space today, but they might not need that same space 15 years from now for the same thing. You build in flexibility so you can grow and adapt as the labor market fluctuates."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

RCC electronics instructor Dave McKeen jams on a guitar during a Wednesday tour of the Table Rock Campus in White City by members of governor's higher education policy staff. McKeen explained the math his students must master in order to build guitars. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]