By Diane Deffenbaugh, Virginia Tech
A statewide initiative designed to encourage economic growth has awarded the Virginia Tech College of Engineering a grant to advance Southwest Virginia’s manufacturing, transportation, and autonomous vehicles sector by scaling up the talent pipeline to train and retain workers.
The GO Virginia grant, which includes $500,000 in state funding and $251,300 from matching nonstate sources, builds on a Virginia Tech-led coalition of more than 150 public, private, and nonprofit organizations that was one of 60 finalists for the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge. The Automated-Connected-Electrified (ACE) coalition includes a team of higher education and community partners as well as industry leaders such as Volvo, Torc Robotics, and Mack.
John Provo, executive director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, which serves as GO Virginia’s regional support organization, lauded this new effort. He said the funding will allow the coalition to move forward with initiatives to help companies grow, build a shared identity for the cluster, and develop a diverse and technically ready workforce.
Pamela VandeVord, associate dean of research and innovation in the College of Engineering and the N. Waldo Harrison Professor of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, is principal investigator on the grant.
“Through the Industry 4.0 curriculum, we’re teaching students using real-world transportation and air mobility problems,” VandeVord said. “Our goal is to align the resources within Region 2 to help companies find success and talent as well as attract business to the area. In the process, we will elevate the transportation and autonomy sector, which has been identified as a priority sector in Region 2’s Growth and Diversification Plan.”
GO Virginia Region 2 stretches from the New River Valley to the Lynchburg area and north to the Alleghany Highlands. Since 2018, more than $8 million has been awarded to projects in the region, creating more than 700 jobs.
The ACE project will incorporate the findings of a previous GO Virginia planning grant focused on the training needs of Industry 4.0, a term used to describe today’s manufacturing environment that incorporates smart technologies and the internet to better connect and automate the industrial process.
The Virginia Tech Roanoke Center and the Grado Department of Industrial and System Engineering’s Learning Factory partnered on that grant to gather manufacturers, economic development experts, and educators — including ones from community colleges around the region — to gain insights into skills gaps in the workforce, existing training opportunities, and how to best fill any holes.
“The resulting Industry 4.0 curriculum will include hands-on training for in-demand jobs as well as skills necessary to be successful in the competitive and rapidly developing automated transportation system industry,” said Scott Weimer, executive director of Roanoke Regional Initiatives, which includes the Roanoke Center.
John S. Capps, president of Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, said that this type of collaboration will make all the difference in building a competitive workforce for the region.
“From work-based learning opportunities such as job shadowing and apprenticeships to state-of-the-art classrooms and lab spaces for hands-on practice with cutting-edge technologies, we can build customized workforce training to fill skills gaps across the manufacturing and transportation industries,” Capps said.
The project will also help businesses connect with resources and get customized training from Virginia Tech faculty and state manufacturing extension affiliate GENEDGE. A project technical advisory committee will include experts in education, training, and technical assistance from public agencies, business support nonprofits, and regional community organizations. A “network navigator,” meanwhile, will help companies find the educational and training programs that best fit their needs.
“By providing direct technical assistance and advising to companies through enhanced Industry 4.0 educational programs, this project is expected to create more than 140 jobs in the region with an average salary of $70,436 within five years,” Provo said.
The Center for Economic and Community Engagement, part of Outreach and International Affairs, is an established U.S. Economic Development Administration University Center. It provides research and university connections to help organizations and communities identify and tackle challenges in the urban-rural continuum across the commonwealth.