PENDLETON --- Andrew Pruitt says he often lay awake at night thinking of ways to get a better job, to earn more money so he could be self supportive.  Unable to find a full-time job, he had a series of part-time, minimum-wage jobs that he found unfulfilling. He would drive home, frustrated, mentally weighing his options, which at the time were slim.   "I couldn't see myself moving forward," said Andrew, who after graduating from Faith Christian School in 2015, chose to look for employment instead of applying to college.

"I thought I would get a job and work my way up the ladder," he said.  "I knew I wanted a hands-on job, but I wasn't sure of my strengths or weaknesses," said the 22-year-old West Union resident. 

He finally had a heart-to-heart talk with his mother, and he expressed his dissatisfaction with feeling like he would never be able to move out on his own and be self sufficient.  "I said something has got to give."  They discussed at length how he could position himself for today's workplace.  "A four-year college wasn't a realistic goal for me," he said.  "I told her what I wanted to do and she said let's look at Tri-County Technical College."  She e-mailed the College and asked about educational options for her son.  She learned about a new program designed to meet the needs of workers and employers in Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties.

The I-Best (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) Manufacturing Pathways program offers opportunities for under-resourced adults to earn college credit, national certifications and WorkKeys credentials at a silver level or higher. 

"It was like they made the course just for me," said Andrew.  "When I read the course descriptions, it was almost verbatim to what I told my mother I was looking for."

In January, the new I-BEST Manufacturing Pathway program, a collaborative partnership with area Adult Education Centers, launched its Level 2 component.

"There's a lot about our version of I-BEST that's really different from things we've done before," said Diana Walter, director of Technical Skills for Success (TSS) at Tri-County.

"It's a pathway, so it's not just about getting a quick job, it's about gaining skills and capacity that will take you further. The goal is an associate degree for each and every student, in time. At first, though, it's about meaningful skills and certifications in just one semester - then students work their plan by being placed in full-time employment or continuing their studies, or by combining work and study."

On January 10, fifteen students started two college classes (College 120 and MFG 101) in Level 2 of the I-BEST Manufacturing Career Pathway Program. Some students are concurrently enrolled in Level 1 of the Pathway at an Adult Education Center, others completed Level 1 last semester and are now transitioning into the next phase. A few completed their high school credential within the past year and were able to enter directly into Level 2.

All of the students will participate in national certification training during the semester, many will retake one or more WorkKeys tests and everyone will have an individual education and training plan for the future - combining non-credit and credit opportunities through to at least the associate degree. With support from their instructors, as well as College staff, students will learn how to advance their careers in manufacturing with additional education and understand the type of job performance employers value - and reward, said Walter.

Andrew met with the TSS staff before enrolling in the classes but he admits he was a bit skeptical.  "But they made me a believer.  They proved themselves from day one.  No more fears and doubts," he said.  "I knew they cared about my success.  I knew I was in the right place.  It felt like the biggest bear hug," he said.

"They are college students, taking college classes with the same expectations as other Tri-County students," said Walter.  Attendance and active participation are required in all class activities, as well as the national certification training/testing. "Students understand from the very first day that Pathway classes foster and require the behaviors needed for success in work and in college," said Walter.

"They were willing to talk and explain things to us," Andrew said, referring to fellow class members, like him, most of whom never considered college.  "I have been given unconditional patience.  The instructors and staff members help in class and one-on-one with individual appointments.  It's a nice security blanket to know they are there to support you."

Another bonus is the course is offered free of charge, thanks to special, state-funded workforce development funding.  Students enroll in the two college courses in Level 2 of the Pathway at no charge for tuition, books or even a parking decal, but they must cover their own costs for transportation and child care.

"Tuition, books, parking pass  -- all paid for. It's a great deal.  I thought there would be fine print, but no -- no fine print, no cost to students," said Andrew.

Just two months into the semester, Andrew has secured a new job at Oconee Machine and Tool.  He will be working 20 - 25 hours a week while attending classes.  During the interview, he said he talked about his commitment to the class and to college.  He was hired on the spot and begins working at the end of February.

Andrew admits he didn't have confidence in his academic abilities when he began the semester.  He expressed his self doubt in a letter that was part of a mandatory assignment.

During the first week of the College 120 course, students are required to write a letter to themselves, outlining where they want to be and what they want to achieve in the class.

Andrew's goal was to land a good paying job in a career he loves. He gave himself a deadline of two to three years to achieve that career goal.  His personal goal was to make his parents proud of him.

He admits when he wrote the letter, he had doubts he could fulfill his own expectations.

"I wrote what I thought was realistic and achievable for me.  But in just two months, I have achieved my goals stated in the letter."

He initially thought of the letter as just an assignment.  "I thought I would put it away and never read it again.  But I plan to keep it and to pass it along to friends and help others."

He will enter the Manufacturing 102 course in the summer and continue at Oconee Machine and Tool, learning on the job while continuing to take classes leading to a CNC degree. 

"The major manufacturers are looking for the best people they can get. Our goal is to make people more competitive in the employment process, to ultimately make better employees who are promotable and will stay and make a career out of manufacturing, and at the same time, make a good life for themselves and their families," said Walter.

There is a large group of individuals in our service area who could benefit from this manufacturing pathway program, she added.

Research shows there are 167,151 persons, ages 25 and older, living in Anderson, Oconee, and Pickens counties who have a high school diploma but less than an associate degree. In addition, there are 47,000 adults without a high school credential. 

"Those who have a high school education or less may be working, but they're struggling financially. By today's definition, they are what's termed 'the working poor.'  They need more education but unfortunately, they can't quit their current jobs to gain more education to get a better job, so they are trapped," said Walter. 

"Because of the nationwide skilled labor shortage all industry is facing today, manufacturers are continuously telling us they struggle to fill the gap between available jobs and skilled workers. They're constantly looking for good people with the skills they need to produce their products - and to be active learners who can keep up with changing technologies and workplace demands," she said.

For the past several years, the College has focused on filling that gap with youth through the College's successful Technical Career Pathways (TCP). The new I-BEST initiative builds on "lessons learned" from TCP and expands those concepts in ways that make sense for adult learners.