BRCC sets sights on excellence

A plan to turn Baton Rouge into a regional or even national hub to train highly skilled helicopter pilots, auto mechanics and airplane technicians came a step closer to becoming a reality this week.

The Board of Supervisors for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System gave Baton Rouge Community College the go-ahead to begin work on a proposed multi-site Center of Excellence in Transportation and Technology.

While plans are moving forward, the center still needs approval from the state’s higher education management board before it comes to fruition.

The idea behind the center is to provide highly trained workers to fill the estimated 2,500-plus unfilled mechanics and technicians jobs in the state.

LCTCS President Joe May said Louisiana auto dealers complained to him years ago of having to send technicians out of state to be trained to work on today’s highly complex cars and trucks.

This week’s board vote would clear a path to expand an existing avionics program at the Baton Rouge airport; renovate a multi-purpose training site on Hooper Road; and build an automotive technician training facility as part of BRCC’s new campus in Smiley Heights.

Smiley Heights is a mixed-use development northeast of BRCC near Florida Boulevard, in a neighborhood bounded by Greenwell Springs Road and roughly between North Ardenwood Drive and North Lobdell Boulevard.

Officials at BRCC this week said they do not have a specific timetable for when each program would be up and running as different components are being phased in over time as construction allows.

The Center of Excellence concept was created by the state Legislature in 2010 to fill workforce needs in Louisiana. The state is putting up $13.9 million, but private donors and grants are expected to add about $10 million more in equipment for use in the classrooms.

Institutions generally have to demonstrate years worth of success filling a need before the state Board of Regents would grant them that designation.

The advantage of being named a Center of Excellence is an institution’s ability to charge higher tuition than normal.

BRCC’s proposed Center of Excellence has yet to be formally approved by the Regents. State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said Friday the review process for BRCC’s program will be “unusual.”

“Normally, there’s is a history of performance,” Purcell said. “In this case, we don’t have that. It’s going to be different making that determination.”

He added that BRCC might have been better off supporting a bill making its way through Legislature that would give Louisiana’s college and university systems tuition-setting authority.

House Bill 194, sponsored by state Rep. Walt Leger III, a New Orleans Democrat, has yet to make it to either the House or Senate floors for debate. On BRCC’s campus, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Monique Cross said the center has the potential to be a “national model.”

“We’ll be training pilots and training folks to work on the systems that support the oil and gas industry,” she said.

Manufacturers from around the area and the state would donate engines, transmissions and other equipment to the center for students to learn on, Cross said, adding that there will be multiple opportunities for internships.

“This truly is a partnership with industry,” Cross said. “We’ll provide the workforce training that meets their needs.”