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Columbia Business Monthly

With Focus on Manufacturing and STEAM, New High School Could Help Fountain Inn Economy

Nov 03, 2022 01:27PM ● By Melinda G. Young

Fountain Inn is leading the way in improving the area’s advanced manufacturing workforce – all thanks to a new high school.

The 1-year-old Fountain Inn High School focuses on advanced manufacturing. It was designed to expose students to career paths that include advanced manufacturing apprenticeships, internships, and one- or two-year degrees at local tech colleges. Students can even work toward both their high school diploma and a technical degree simultaneously.

There are not enough skilled workers in the area to fill all of the advanced manufacturing jobs in the marketplace, said Robbie Ellis, HR Team Lead Supervisor with ZF Transmissions Gray Court, which is part of ZF Group, headquartered in Friedrichshafen, Germany, and Northville, Michigan.

“A facility such as ours is very high-tech, advanced manufacturing,” Ellis said.

The company needs highly skilled employees, and there are not enough people with those skills to fill all available jobs, he said.

Even with a mechatronics degree, it takes several years to be a fully functioning technician, he said.

“A large part of my job is going around to high schools in three to four counties surrounding us to preach that we have an opportunity that may be appealing to some students, and it doesn’t require a four-year degree,” Ellis said.

This is where the Fountain Inn High School can help: the school’s focus is on helping the area produce more skilled workers to meet the needs of area manufacturers. 

The high school already is producing some positive results – even though it will be 2025 before its first students graduate.

“The high school’s an incredible asset for us, as we work with companies that are gauging their level of interest in this area,” said Mark Farris, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Greenville Area Development Corp. (GADC) in Greenville.

“The No. 1 issue is labor, so if we’re able to capitalize on the training that schools are doing to fill the pipeline of manufacturing workers, then we’re a step above some of our competing communities,” Farris said.

“We’ve absolutely used the high school in our marketing material and are talking about it with companies, trying to distinguish Greenville County from our competitors,” he said.

A big benefit to having a manufacturing-focused high school is that it exposes students to manufacturing as a career and helps them understand that factory jobs are not like the former textile jobs that their parents or grandparents might recall, Farris said.

“It really puts a student in a position to be able to enter into manufacturing and go further along the learning curve,” he said. “The exposure will increase applicants for manufacturing jobs.”

The new high school has an Institute of Automation and Engineering and teaches students how to use 3D printers, CNC machinery, and CAD. It also has pathways for pre-engineering, mechatronics-integrated technology, informatics, biomedical science, computer science, and integrated production technology. 

The school’s 750-plus students are now in ninth and 10th grades. Each year, another freshman class is added, and the school will be at full enrollment in the 2024-‘25 school year, said Maureen Tiller, principal of Fountain Inn High School.

“Our parents and students are excited about the school, and what they’re most excited about are the opportunities,” Tiller said. “There are all these pathways.”

Fountain Inn High School has a manufacturing focus, but it is not a magnet school. Students who live outside its area can apply to attend, just as they can apply to any Greenville County School District school. They need to provide their own transportation and would be accepted as long as there is room in the high school, Tiller said.

The district’s two other schools that infuse the arts with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEAM) are Fisher Middle School and A. J. Whittenberg Elementary School. Although it’s possible that some Greenville County students could attend a STEAM school from kindergarten until they graduate, these other schools are not feeder schools to Fountain Inn High School. 

Students who attend those two schools could apply if they want to continue on that track, but they do not have a guaranteed acceptance, Tiller said.

The new high school was designed to have a unique layout with space that is shared by various classes and teachers throughout the day, she said.

“All spaces are intended to be flexible learning spaces, so teachers don’t own their classrooms,” Tiller explained.

One advantage to this approach is that instructors from Greenville Tech will be able to come into the high school and use a classroom for college courses the high school students will attend. 

Starting next year, the school’s first 11th-grade students will be eligible for dual enrollment with Greenville Tech. They could earn high school and college credits at the same time, Tiller said.

“We work with Greenville Tech and let students enroll for classes and choose the classes they’re interested in,” she said. “We give the Greenville Tech instructor a time slot, and it’s easy to assign a classroom to that instructor.”

Other Greenville County School District high schools also offer dual enrollment classes with Greenville Tech, Tiller said.

A more unusual feature of the high school is that some students may have opportunities to do mentoring and job shadowing. 

ZF Transmissions has a 6-year-old apprenticeship program that will be offered to students graduating from Fountain Inn High School. The company pays apprentices a salary to work at the facility while they also pursue technical degrees that prepare them for the manufacturer’s workforce. And the company pays for their college tuition, Ellis said.

“We start taking applications midway through their senior year and go through a vetting process and testing process and make job offers around April or May of their senior year,” he explained. “Once they graduate, they begin to work with us, and as part of the program, we also send them to one of the local technical colleges, including Piedmont Tech, Tri-County Tech, and Greenville Tech.”

The company looks for students who get good grades and are able to handle difficult coursework, but who are not interested in a four-year college pathway, he said.

“There’s a very narrow band of students that will meet the profile that I’m looking for, and the competition for apprentices is very fierce as well,” he said. “You’re looking for a student that does well in the classroom, but also has a mechanical mindset and is inquisitive about how things work.”

Companies like ZF also want to see more women in these advanced manufacturing jobs, but most of the available workers are men. “I hope that having a school focused on manufacturing will introduce opportunities to girls at an earlier age and get them thinking about these job opportunities,” he said.

“So, what Greenville County has done is taking a huge step of helping out companies like ZF by having a high school that is focused on manufacturing and is getting kids on this path earlier,” Ellis said.