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St. Louis community colleges are expanding advanced manufacturing curriculums

Two construction workers walk the site of Southwestern Illinois College's new advanced manufacturing training facility.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Two construction workers walk the site of Southwestern Illinois College's new advanced manufacturing training facility on Friday. The building will be completed and open to students in fall 2024 or spring 2025.

Some community colleges across the St. Louis region are gearing up to expand educational programs for advanced manufacturing with the help of a $25 million federal Build Back Better challenge grant that St. Louis won last year. Local business leaders expect advanced manufacturing to grow into one of the region’s critical industries.

Part of the money from that grant helps establish new training facilities with high-end equipment at both Southwestern Illinois College and St. Louis Community College.

“The mindset is: We were good before, but this is going to allow us to be better,” said Robert Tebbe, chief enrollment, development and institutional planning officer at SWIC. “You can teach a higher level of machining when you have the proper equipment.”

The community college already has robust manufacturing courses at its Granite City campus and will expand to more students once construction of the new facility in Belleville is complete, he said. Tebbe added that it allows the college to provide more instruction on automated manufacturing, robotics, metal printing and other topics.

“It’s adding more in-depth and sophisticated curriculum,” Tebbe said. “More classes and certificate programs at Belleville, but also a better hands-on experience at Belleville and Granite City.”

Tebbe expects the new building to open in August 2024 or spring 2025. That’s about the same timeframe for a new advanced manufacturing facility at St. Louis Community College’s Florissant Valley campus, said Tom McGovern, academic dean for STEM at that campus.

“SWIC and St. Louis Community College are on a very similar path on this as far as timing and the kinds of equipment and programs that we’re putting in,” he said.

The new building will help consolidate STLCC’s courses around manufacturing and offer some expansions to them, McGovern said. It’s also an opportunity to add cutting-edge equipment for students to learn on, like programmable logic controllers, conveyors and robotics, he added.

“We’re looking at combining all those into an industrial electronic and automation program, which we’ve had components of but never an official program for,” McGovern said.

The new equipment is important to preparing students for success once they complete a course, degree or certification program at the community college, he said.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on having things that people will see in industry,” McGovern said, “so that when they’ve completed our program on either side, they walk into a plant, they’re looking at a machine and go, ‘Yeah that’s the machine I trained on.’”

Tebbe agrees. Money from the regional grant will also help SWIC purchase new equipment to enhance what the college can teach, he added.

“We want to fill up that [new facility] with a bunch of students with proper equipment that will lead to prevailing wage work,” Tebbe said, “and the end outcome to where they graduate, get hired and become a positive outcome tied to our community.”

Tebbe and McGovern stressed the demand from companies for people with expertise in areas like computer-aided design and biomedical electronics repair remains strong. They said their programs will be there to help people who may want to make a transition themselves.

“It’s not just about the students that are in the classroom, but it’s about the community and giving students, whether they’re current or looking to retrain, an understanding of what manufacturing and engineering is about,” McGovern said.

Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio. 

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.