GONZALES — Site work has begun on a new $9.2 million technology center at River Parishes Community College that officials say will prepare students with skills needed for jobs now and for the kinds of jobs that will be available a decade from now.
Funded with state money and a required 12 percent match raised by the community college, the Advanced Technology Center will be a new home to classes in the industrial crafts — such as welding, process technology and instrumentation — that are now taught out of a building RPCC leases on Airline Highway in Sorrento.
The center, which will be built at the back of the RPCC campus and across an open green space from the main building, is expected to be completed by the end of this year or early next year, said Chancellor Dale Doty.
The new building will feature classrooms, as well as two large bays, one on each end of the new building, that can accommodate a variety of industrial training operations.
BASF Corp. has donated an industrial tower that will replicate an on-the-job setting for students.
“It’s a training facility to train them for the jobs here now that’s flexible enough to prepare them for the jobs 10 years from now,” Doty said.
The new technology center coming to River Parishes Community College, on Edenborne Parkway, came about through a state law passed in 2013, Act 360, that provides state funds for the construction of new technology centers at the state’s community and technical colleges.
Under the act, RPCC would receive $8.1 million from the state for the new center if it could provide a 12 percent matching grant of approximately $1.1 million.
Donations ranging from several thousand dollars up to $350,000 came from plants, contractors, businesses and individuals in the parish. The college met the 12 percent match within 70 days in summer 2014, said Ryland Percy, who served as president of the board of trustees of the RPCC Foundation at the time.
Percy, who helped lead the fundraising effort along with others, including fellow trustee Charlie Freeburgh, now senior vice chancellor of workforce development at Baton Rouge Community College, said the challenge of raising $1.1 million to make the project happen initially seemed insurmountable.
“As it worked out, it was a lot of hard work, but at the same time, it was not a hard sell, because the industry leaders saw what it meant to the future of their workforce,” Percy said.
Student enrollment at RPCC this semester is approximately 1,700, Doty said. In the fall, enrollment is usually higher, and last fall was close to 2,000.
Doty estimates that about two-thirds of the students are working on a two-year associate degree, with plans to transfer to a four-year university. About a third of the students go to RPCC for technical training, he said.
“We’re doing both of these” types of programs, Doty said. “That’s what a community college is.”
Bruce Waguespack, vice chancellor of workforce development at RPCC, said the community college offers associate degrees in technical fields and certificates of technical studies that are normally part of the associate degree studies.
But the community college also offers short-term, two-week training for scaffold builders and four-week training for mobile crane operators.
“Workforce development makes sure that people get the training they need to get a job or advance in their job,” Waguespack said.
He said the college continues to adjust to employer needs in the area and is starting work on a project that will train deckhands to work on tugboats on the Mississippi River.
A boom in the petrochemical industry in Ascension Parish and in neighboring St. James Parish in recent years has brought with it an increased demand for skilled workers.
In Ascension, projects have included a $2.1 billion expansion at CF Industries in Donaldsonville; and a $1.1 billion project at Methanex and a $350 million expansion at BASF, both in Geismar.
In November, Shell Chemical announced a $717 million project at its facility, also in Geismar.