Gaining Altitude


Charleston has long been known for its stately old homes and buildings and its prominent place in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Tourists have flocked to the city by the hundreds of thousands to bask in its pleasant weather, enjoy fine food and immerse themselves in its laid-back attitude. One magazine has even ranked Charleston as the number one city in the world to visit.

For all its endearing attributes, however, until reasonably recently, the Charleston area lacked a clear path from its venerable past to the innovation required to compete with other cities in the 21st century. Boeing changed all that when it announced in 2009 that it would start building airplanes in the Lowcountry, and now Trident Technical College is opening that door into the future even wider. The community college’s South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center will prepare thousands of students for high-paying jobs at Boeing, its suppliers and other companies that have chosen to put down roots in the Lowcountry.

And, if Trident Tech President Mary Thornley has her way, the 224,000-square-foot project that will be located on the school’s main campus in North Charleston will provide a major impetus toward establishing an “aeronautical culture” in the Charleston area – starting with the area’s youngest residents.

“The challenge is the culture. Kids don’t want to grow up to be engineers or to be in manufacturing,” Thornley said. “We want to create a culture that will prepare them to see what these careers are like. Right now, we don’t have little girls talking about assembling airplanes.”

Airplanes might well be a topic of discussion among schoolchildren sometime soon. Elementary and high school students will have the opportunity to take a firsthand look at the facility, which will include classrooms, shops and labs, as well as bays that can accommodate aircraft and large aircraft parts. In addition to the main building, plans call for a central energy plant and a paint hangar. The South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center will be much more than just a school building.

“It’s going to be alive,” Thornley commented.

When the Center is completed, in the fall of 2019 or sooner, according to Meg Howle, Trident Tech’s vice president for advancement, it will serve the needs of more than 5,000 students annually, including those taking continuing education classes. Construction on the 25-acre site is expected to begin during the summer of 2017.

Thornley said the germ for the Training Center was planted in her head in 2009, when Boeing announced that it would start building its 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston. Though the idea to help create a local workforce for 21st-century companies seemed logical, finding $79 million to build the facility at first appeared to be nothing more than a pipe dream.

“In the beginning, we couldn’t say $79 million without choking,” Thornley remembered. “We don’t have price tags that high at Trident Tech. But we decided we better get this right and ask for what was required to do it.”

More than half the funding for the Training Center, $48,441,348, will come from the state of South Carolina. Charleston County chipped in with $18.75 million in cash and another $337,000 in road work, while Trident Tech has committed $8.125 million in cash and land, and the city of North Charleston added $1 million to the project. The remainder of the $79,326,908 will come from federal grants and private contributions.

Thornley said she didn’t have to convince the local legislative delegation to support the project.

“We didn’t have to waste time and energy explaining it to them. We were able to spend time and energy explaining it to other legislators across the state,” Thornley said. “Our legislators understand the importance of this facility, that we need to develop talent, not just import talent. This is the way we’re going to do that. Our legislators understand that, and we’re indebted to them.”

Trident Technical College, which has campuses in North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Moncks Corner and downtown Charleston, already offers education and training in a variety of areas that suit the needs of students seeking employment with Boeing, Volvo and other companies in and near North Charleston, including Aircraft Maintenance Technology, Aircraft Assembly Technology, Avionics Maintenance Technology and courses that fall under the heading of Industrial and Engineering Technology. In addition, readySC instructors are on campus. The program works with the state’s technical colleges to help meet the workforce needs of companies that expand or relocate to the Palmetto State.

However, according to Trident Technical College Director of Public Information David Hansen, there currently is a waiting list for students to get into the school’s aeronautical programs. That will change, of course, once the South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center opens its doors, when a large number of classes will be added to the schedule.

Thornley’s pipe dream has become a pipeline that will grow even more important to the Lowcountry economy once the Center is completed. The school’s president pointed out that the tri-county area is attractive to 21st-century companies, as well as to the people who will make up their workforces. She said all the school’s students aren’t from Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, but 96 percent of them remain in the Charleston area once they graduate.

“We’re in the pipeline business for Boeing, Volvo and the plant down the street with five employees,” Thornley said. “Boeing and Volvo came here with the belief that we could create that pipeline, and we better do a good job of it. Boeing’s decision to come here was a harbinger of other momentous decisions. If airplanes can be manufactured here, then luxury automobiles can be manufactured here as well.

“This has become a manufacturing mecca,” she added. “There’s opportunity for all kinds of students to land good jobs.”

Thornley cited one more way the South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center will serve the needs of Boeing and other local manufacturers.

“Boeing wants diversity in both gender and race, and the diversity at Trident Tech mirrors the diversity in the tri-county area,” she pointed out.