Friday, May 24, 2024

Wake Tech plays key role in Amazon’s N.C. growth spurt

Wake Technical Community College has been in the news recently because of the announcement of a new apprenticeship partnership with Amazon. But the larger context is the college’s planned new construction over the next few years in eastern Wake County.

The Amazon partnership is an offshoot of the retailer’s rapidly growing footprint in North Carolina, which I wrote about last month.  Amazon has spent the better part of the last decade building millions of square feet of warehouse buildings along the interstates from Garner in the Triangle to the Triad to Charlotte.  These buildings are highly automated, with humans working alongside robots, and Wake Tech has been designated as one of its training sites for the retailing behemoth’s mechatronics and robotics apprenticeship program. For the time being, at least, the Amazon training will take place in a facility Wake Tech operates next to the Raleigh Beltline.

Meanwhile, over the next few years, the first phase of the college’s Eastern Wake complex will take shape. It will sit next to Interstate 87/U.S. 64 in Wendell, and is being called “Eastern Wake 4.0,” because its focus is the Fourth Industrial Revolution of sensors, connectivity, artificial intelligence and smart technology embedded into everything. The Internet of Things that has been just around the corner is here. And Wake Tech students will help build it and keep it running.

Students will learn mechatronics — the blend of engineering, computing and electronics that, for example, run the kinds of industrial robots that fetch inventory in Amazon fulfillment centers.  Other students will join the front lines of the telecom revolution with a tower technician apprenticeship program; the national 5G rollout replacing wireless infrastructure everywhere is a key part of 4.0 connectivity. Self-driving cars talking to each other. Some students will train to operate drones in a “Public Safety 4.0 Building” with a simulation center for first responders.

Twenty years ago, most of the action at Wake Tech was south of Raleigh on U.S. 401 and at a health sciences campus next to WakeMed. Today, the college has six campuses throughout Wake County, and a handful of other facilities.

More than 70,000 students take Wake Tech classes each year, making it the largest community college in the state. That’s around one in 10 Wake County residents between the ages of 18 and 65. Being located in Wake County, of course, the college gets overshadowed by the region’s world-class universities – UNC Chapel Hill, Duke and N.C. State.

But Wake Tech is the place to take those science classes to get into graduate school or for new skills to get a promotion. Nearly a quarter of Wake Tech students have bachelor’s degrees, with a higher percentage in the business analytics certificate programs.

“The way people sometimes think of community colleges is not the way we really are,” says Wake Tech President Scott Ralls.  “Other states started more as junior colleges.”  But North Carolina’s community college system has always had a strong focus on workforce development.

A big pillar of the early system was a network of 20 industrial education centers to retrain a workforce that was heavily dependent on agriculture, textiles and furniture. North Carolina’s political leaders wanted to develop workers for a more diversified economy.

Scott Ralls, Wake Tech president

When a unified community college system was created in 1963, the foundation of today’s 58-school network, there were more industrial centers than the more traditional two-year campuses. Rall’s college was the Wake County Industrial Education Center in 1958, when it was created to teach classes like blueprint reading.

So workforce development is still “very much in our DNA,” says Ralls. Nearly 40,000 of Wake Tech’s students are non-degree students getting a very particular set of skills.

The Amazon program is part of the company’s $700 million initiative — Upskilling 2025 — to provide training to 100,000 Amazon employees in the U.S. by 2025.  Amazon’s growth in North Carolina, including the new Garner fulfillment center off Interstate 40 southeast of Raleigh, made Wake Tech a logical partner.

The college’s new WakeWorks Apprenticeship program was funded last year by the Wake County Commissioners to support such projects.

Amazon knows Ralls well.  He was president of Northern Virginia Community College (better known up in the DC suburbs as NOVA) from 2015 to 2019, after seven years in Raleigh as president of the North Carolina community college system. He was in Virginia when Amazon announced that it was going to build its new second headquarters in Arlington, Va.

Amazon asked Ralls if NOVA could quickly start a training program. “They said can you do a cloud apprenticeship in six weeks? And we’d never done anything like that before,” recalled Ralls.  “And we said, ‘Yeah,’ but we probably sounded more confident than we were.” The program started on time.

That is why community colleges are at the heart of state economic development programs, because they can move fast to develop custom training. “We were created to be part of that arsenal,” says Ralls.

Much of the growth of Wake Tech came during the tenure of Ralls’ predecessor, Stephen Scott. During Scott’s nearly 15 years, the college added four new campuses and the Beltline Education Center where the new Amazon training will take place. The voters passed three bond issues to fuel the expansion during Scott’s tenure, and then, shortly after he retired in 2018, approved $349 million in bonds for new facilities.

The expansion was slated in and around existing campuses, but that proved challenging. A new technology building on the South campus would have taken away parking and required a new deck, and as Ralls put it, “Parking decks are the least efficient educational buildings you can build.” There was a similar problem with parking for a new building across from the public safety campus in Raleigh.

“So, it turns out,” he says, “as we started scouting around, you can buy 106 acres of land right on I-87 across the street from [East Wake High School], and do the infrastructure for a campus for what it essentially costs to build a parking deck. So, it just kind of made all the sense in the world.”

To understand the historical significance of Eastern Wake 4.0, you have to understand how the eastern side of Wake County is different from the rest of the county. The west side has affluent Cary, home to SAS and Epic Games, and part of RTP.  For 50 years, the booming suburbs of Raleigh have spread northward. By contrast, the east side of Wake hasn’t seen as much growth. That could change, with the eventual completion of the 540 Outer Loop from southern Wake up to Knightdale and Interstate 87. But in Wendell, 15 miles east of downtown Raleigh, median household incomes and home values are half Cary’s.

“Part of our role and purpose is to reach out to folks who need us the most,” says Ralls. “That’s an area with lower college-going and completion rates than the rest of the county.”

Eastern Wake 4.0 will help recruit companies to the corridor from Knightdale to Zebulon. Better road access and Wake Tech’s expansion promise to help make this a big decade for Eastern Wake.

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