Taking the technical path for a great career

The Means Report

A traditional college setting is not always the right fit. Some students may find that a technical college is a better route. Dr. Forest Mahan, President of Aiken Technical College, sits down with Brad Means to explain what a technical college is, what it offers that a traditional college may not, and how it can be a great alternative for a high school graduate or an adult looking to further their career.

Brad Means: Let’s take a look at technical college. What it offers, and how you can use that as a huge stepping stone to success. Dr. Forest Mahan is the President of Aiken Technical College, kind enough to come down to Television Park and be with us today. Dr. Mahan, thank you so much for leading Aiken Tech and for being with us today.

Dr. Forest Mahan: Well, Brad, thank you for having me.

Brad Means: It is my pleasure.

Dr. Forest Mahan: I’m glad to be helping.

Brad Means: My first question is, is a generic one. What is a technical school? Because I’ve heard a lot of people over the years saying, “I’m gonna go learn a trade, “therefore I’m gonna go to a technical school.” What is a technical college?

Dr. Forest Mahan: In South Carolina, a technical college is part of a larger system of 16 colleges that is designed to help individuals do one of two things. Either go into short-term training that could get them into the workforce, Or, serve as a spring board for them to get their first two years out of the way to attend a four-year college. Aiken Tech, as one of these 16 technical colleges, has a service area of Aiken County. And we serve the people of Aiken County, as well as the industries and business there. To sort of provide for the pipeline of workers that go into the workforce, and also as that spring board to maybe transfer to University of South Carolina Aiken, or any other four-year college.

Brad Means: I know you don’t want to name every single profession, but what are some of the main ones that tech graduates can go into?

Dr. Forest Mahan: We really have four key areas that we focus upon. We have an Associate of Arts, Associate in Science degree, which is the spring board to a four-year college. And they can transfer that degree. We have an area of what we call Industrial Technology, or rather we would say, Industrial Education, that focus on advanced manufacturing, but also the nuclear field. With the Savannah River Site, and we’ve got Plant Vogel, and we have the VC Summer Site. And then, in addition, we have a Business and Computer Technology with Cyber coming to the CSRA. That’s something that we are really getting on top of, in terms of allowing for credentials to develop. And, also, very important to everybody, healthcare. There’s a lot of different opportunities for Associate Degree Nursing, Licensed Practical Nursing, we are developing a Physical Therapy Assisting Program. So there’s a wide variety of programs that individuals can get into, that can get them into the workforce within a year or two.

Brad Means: Well, so, what’s the point of choosing that route versus just doing all four of your years at a traditional college?

Dr. Forest Mahan: It depends upon the individual. We often think of traditional college as it being the four-year route, and we think of the 18 year olds that, now mom and dad are about to ship off to school. Say, University of South Carolina, Clemson, College of Charleston, University of Georgia. But, the two-year college route are for people who are maybe at 18 not completely sure what they wanna do yet. And, they wanna take a little bit of time to sort of figure out what it is they wanna do. They may be more inclined to go directly into a field that meets their skill set. They may be much more technically inclined. So, welding, which after maybe a two-year degree, you could start out making $60,000 a year, would make better sense. So, we do that for young people, but we also reach out to the adult learner. We’re there for non-traditional adults, who maybe didn’t feel college was right for them, they went into the workforce and maybe they’ve plateaued. Maybe it’s time to come back to school to get that next step in the career. So, we’re really there to kind of meet the local needs of Aiken County. And, but also we do work with the colleges in the surrounding areas of the CSRA.

Brad Means: Well, I think you may have just answered one of my next questions. Which is, what’s the benefit to getting that technical college diploma, or degree, versus going and learning, say, welding from a welder? You know, why can’t I just go hang out with him for a little while ’til I’m a good welder, as well? Are you gonna make a lot more money with that diploma?

Dr. Forest Mahan: Right now, there’s such demand with such low unemployment. We have individuals who may even get the job before they finish their credential. But we always encourage our students to finish that credential because no one can take that from them. Once they have that credential, it’s gonna transfer wherever they wanna go. And we also believe in a stackable credential concept. In other words, they may start out with a certificate and they may come back for the two-year degree. And then they may then use that as a spring board to a four-year degree. So, we believe that people can learn and earn at the same time, work and go to school. And this is a very, you know, appropriate, very affordable. And that’s the key thing, affordability. Higher education can run into high costs, and so, we work very hard with our students to make sure that they can have little or no debt as possible.

Brad Means: When it comes to learning some of the professions that you’ve discussed already, do employers care if it’s a two-year or a four-year degree?

Dr. Forest Mahan: It will depend upon the exact job that they are looking to hire for. For example, we developed, with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, a Nuclear Fundamental certificate, which gets them in the door. And then, therefore, can serve as a spring board for them to get further training. We often say, it’s a good idea before you go into a profession, you might wanna get an entry-level job. And, in many ways, the employer will more than likely help defray the cost, if they go back to college. So, in that way, it’s a way of making sure you can get through college, and get through as debt-free as possible.

Brad Means: Are y’all on this cyber bandwagon? Are you preparing students for that?

Dr. Forest Mahan: We are on the cyber bandwagon. We are working very closely with our partners in Aiken County, and also across the river. We work, and communicate and coordinate with Augusta University, and communicate with Augusta Tech. Because cyber, much like the nuclear industry, is something that sort of will spill across both sides of the river. So, it’s very unique to be able to have that cross state line, plus multiple counties working together. And so, we’re working with the Aiken County Public School District to provide a cyber certificate for Silver Bluff High School. When they graduate, they’ll have 18 credit hours towards a cyber certificate, which we hope would encourage them to come to Aiken Tech.

Brad Means: Right.

Dr. Forest Mahan: And we’re also working for a pathway to get people into going to USC Aiken. So, we’re very unique, as I said, we have a service area of Aiken County, and we have a school district, which serves the county, one school district. And then we have a four-year University, all within a 10-mile radius. So, people in Aiken County can go from K through 12, to two-year, to a four-year college without ever leaving the area, which is really our purpose. We serve the people of our county. Any other state would call us a Community College, but the technical is what’s the big selling point, today.

Brad Means: What about classes that meet people’s schedules? We talked about older folks, not 18 year olds, maybe making a change in life. When can you go to class at Aiken Tech?

Dr. Forest Mahan: Well, we have a degree of flexibility. There are online options. And, we have evening classes, and then day classes. And typically what we’re able to do, according to the program that they’re going into, some may have what we call high-contact hours. If they’re going into a nursing program, they’re gonna be clinical rotations. If they’re going into welding, they’re gonna be long lab hours. So, we always try to work with those individuals to assure they know, basically, what the expectations are and what it is they can be successful. But we have a variety of options. And, in moving towards even some hybrid models, as well.

Brad Means: What kind of feedback do you get from the employers? I know that they’re happy to get these kids, and in some cases, older folks. What do they say to you about how you’re preparing them?

Dr. Forest Mahan: Well, we have advisory boards for all of our fields, and we have the people in the industries, in the fields, in the businesses, come to us at least twice a year and say, “Okay, this program, this is what you’re doing well. “We need to see a little bit more of this, “maybe a little less of that.” If you’re thinking in terms of computer technology, the technology advances so quickly, we have to keep pace with that.

Brad Means: Sure.

Dr. Forest Mahan: Healthcare is much the same way. Nuclear demand. And so, when you’ve got those things, the industries, we are there for them, and we exist to help give them the workforce they need, so we listen very closely to what they say. And we basically say, if we need to do something better, tell us what it is, and we’ll do it.

Brad Means: How do we navigate the financial aid process? How can you help us?

Dr. Forest Mahan: Well, what we do, is there is a FAFSA form. It’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. But this is the form that everybody needs to fill out if they wanna qualify for any financial aid. If there’s need based, they could qualify for Pell Grants, which may cover the whole cost of the tuition. And, maybe even a little bit of living expenses. But that would be based upon their qualifications. In South Carolina, you also have to fill this out to qualify for Lottery Tuition Assistance, which, if you register for a minimum of six credit hours, you qualify for Lottery Tuition Assistance. And then, also between that, we do have student loans, but we work very closely with the students, because we don’t believe anybody going through a two-year college should have a lot of debt. So, we do a lot of counseling to ensure they’re not taking on more debt than they really would need to. And, we also have a grant called The WORC Grant, W-O-R-C, which is The Workforce Opportunities and Regional Careers Grant. Which provides scholarships specifically for particular programs. So, if we have someone who’s interested in a particular program, we say, “You need to make sure you explore what extra funding is there.” And, also through the FAFSA, they qualify for potential scholarships from the Aiken Technical College Foundation.

Brad Means: We’re recording this broadcast in early August.

Dr. Forest Mahan: Right.

Brad Means: Is it too late to jump on for the fall semester?

Dr. Forest Mahan: It really isn’t. It would be a tight timetable. We begin classes on August the 20th.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dr. Forest Mahan: And, we are open door, that’s the thing, but we have to make sure that all students understand that even though we are open door, there has to be placement testing, you have to test into the college-level work. And we provide support, and if we need it, so we call Bridge Courses, to kinda brush them up on math and english and reading. If by chance, there were an adult whose been out of school for 20 years. So they might need that little brush up. So, it’s never too late, and they can go ahead and start the process, get the FAFSA form filled out, get their applications in. And, reach out, and we will be glad to sorta guide them through the process. Now, if by chance, it’s too tight of a timetable, then there’s always the spring, and there’s always the summer, and there’s also late start. So we may have some courses that would start maybe five weeks into the term.

Brad Means: Well, I appreciate all that you’re doing, not only for the kids in high school with the dual enrollment, earning credit hours while they are still in high school, but also for people who might wanna choose a new path in life.

Dr. Forest Mahan: We’re very proud of the partnership with Aiken County Public School District, Midland Valley High School, which is the closest high school to us in proximity. This May, they will have the first cohort of Early College Scholars graduating with their Associate degree in arts or science, as prior to even getting their high school diploma. So they will have their first two years of college out of the way at the age of 18.

Brad Means: Well that is wonderful. Thank you, to you and your team, at Aiken Technical College. We appreciate you.

Dr. Forest Mahan: Well, thank you, Brad for having me, glad to be here.

Brad Means: Absolutely. I told you it would fly by. Nine plus minutes with Dr. Forest Mahan. We’ll bring him back. In the meantime, give his office a call, give Aiken Technical College a call, find out more about what he discussed today.

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The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.