A long-awaited milestone in efforts to bolster the area’s economy was met when Lewis-Clark State College welcomed students to its new Schweitzer Career and Technical Education Center last week.

The facility opened its doors to an improved educational experience aimed at preparing future employees for high-demand jobs in the region, something Clearwater Economic Development Association Executive Director Christine Frei said has been a priority for the last seven years.

“The reason for that is we have so many in-demand occupations that the career technical education center will help to support in educational programming,” said Frei, whose organization serves five counties in north central Idaho. “Our region is struggling to meet the current and the future needs of the workforce (in the areas of the manufacturing industry, information technology and in the automotive collision repair and mechanics) sectors. Proper training is critical to that.”

Tuesday marked the start of LCSC’s spring semester and the first time students in seven career technical education programs were able to utilize the new three-story, 86,000-square-foot building.

“It’s full speed ahead, and it’s a really good feeling,” said Jeff Ober, dean of the college’s career technical division. “After all we’ve done building up to this, it’s nice to finally be up and moving.”

The new center provides additional space for the programs and also aims to strengthen connections with area industries as students are trained for current workforce needs.

The demand is so great in the region that Frei said even the expanded capacity the center provides won’t meet the need, but she said it’s a step in the right direction.

“I will say that, along with working on broadband, it’s the single most important thing we’ve done for our region,” she said of the new center.

The partnerships created with area industries will allow companies to in a sense prescreen future applicants, Ober said, because they get to know the students, and what they are capable of, before they even graduate.

Industry leaders help make up technical advisory committees that meet several times a year to review curriculum and the equipment used to ensure they align with what’s needed in a specific sector.

The committees often invite people from the community who need a certain niche of skills met as they search for future employees.

“I haven’t run into a case yet where an industry we support has come to us and said ‘We need this skill,’ and we’re not able to do that,” Ober said. “We figure out how to build the program so it meets academic requirements and still provides what they are looking for.”

Schweitzer Engineer Laboratories pays for an instructor in the college’s industrial electronics program. Tony Kuphaldt, who was hired for the role in the summer of 2019, said he’s able to teach his students at LCSC while closely working with people in the field.

“Usually a teacher in the public sector would need to reach out to industry to get feedback from them and get input,” he said. “But when I’m in my off season, I show up in my office in Pullman at SEL, and I’m sitting next to engineers and planners. It’s no problem at all for me to tap their minds and their expectations to see what they are looking for.”

Kuphaldt said the unique arrangement provides students with job opportunities not only at Schweitzer, the region’s largest private employer, but at other companies with a similar focus. When the program was being built, dozens of companies from across Idaho provided input on what they needed in order to fill jobs.

“SEL should have to compete with other employees for these graduates, and I’m fully on board with that because public education is where my heart is at,” Kuphaldt said

The center’s proximity to the Lewiston School District’s new high school and A. Neil DeAtley Career Technical Center in the Orchards also has opened the doors for more collaboration.

Ober said administrators are working together to provide a more seamless transition for students. While some students from the high school are already attending classes at LCSC, Ober said both parties are working on a schedule that will make that easier.

Bo Rose, an instructor in auto mechanics technology at LC, said the high school is working to become an Automotive Service Excellence accredited facility.

“Once that’s done, students will basically be able to take their college-level safety and their basic auto repair classes at the high school, and they’ll receive credit for that when they come here,” Rose said. “We’ll have a reciprocating agreement there.”

Similar partnerships are being built for the other programs housed at LC’s new center, Ober said.

Erick Cummings, another instructor in the auto program, said the new space provides students with more room to work.

“We were really cramped (at our last location),” Cummmings said.

He said the program is currently looking for more community members who are interested in getting their cars worked on by students.

Cody Dean, 19, of Driggs, is expected to graduate from the auto program in May. Dean said the program’s new home provides students with better equipment and more opportunity.

“We actually have a lot more space,” he said. “We can put bigger vehicles in here and fit a lot more now.”

Construction on the $27 million center began in April 2019. The college held a ribbon-cutting event in October to celebrate the impending opening.

In addition to auto mechanics technology, the center houses CNC machining technology, information technology, engineering technology, industrial electronics technology, industrial maintenance and millwright technology, and heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration technology.

Dean said he was excited to be a part of the first group of students able to learn in the new space.

“It’s pretty much one big team, even with the different programs,” he said. “Everyone is doing their own thing, but it’s nice because everyone is really friendly here.”

Tomtas may be reached at jtomtas@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2294. Follow her on Twitter @jtomtas.