WILLIAMSTON -- There are so many good things about Tri-County Technical College's Technical Career Pathways program that it's hard to pinpoint which one is best.

At the top of the list is free tuition, compliments of the SC General Assembly, who approved a $1 million state-funded proviso that is making it possible for high school students to take college courses in technical career pathways with little or no out-of-pocket cost.  Tuition and related expenses are funded under the proviso. 

"Free college credit in high school is a big one," says Chris Woodson, who as a senior last year at Palmetto High School, was enrolled in the Mechatronics pathways classes at Anderson 1 and 2 Career and Technology Center.

Coming in a close second is earning a credential (Technical Operator I certificate) from Tri-County before they graduate from high school. 

Industry leaders tout the program as an answer to finding trained and competent graduates with the skills needed in advanced manufacturing and other STEM-related careers.

Both parents and students appreciate that the program gives students a head start on college, allowing them to complete an associate degree in a technical program within one year of full-time study after high school. 

Anderson 1 and 2 Career and Technology Center Director Hollie Harrell says what stands out to her is the program creates, not closes, opportunities for everyone - especially those students who never considered college and are now getting ready to enroll at Tri-County with college credits.

"I didn't expect this opportunity to come along," says Christopher Rector, a Palmetto athlete who played baseball, track and football  -- until last year when he took his first Mechatronics class at the Anderson 1 and 2 Career and Technology Center.

"It has been eye opening. I learned skills - electrical and mechanical -- I didn't know I had.  It turned out to be fun and cool," said Rector, who put sports aside and began to consider a career in advanced manufacturing.      

  His good friend, Woodson, became equally as interested in this career path and quit the marching band for this class.  "I couldn't do both so I chose this class," Woodson said. 

There's a waiting list for all pathways classes -  welding, mechatronics and auto body - and it's because of instructors like Mark Franks, said Harrell.  Tri-County instructor Franks teaches 45 sophomores, juniors and seniors from Belton-Honea Path, Palmetto, Powdersville and Wren high schools in the Mechatronics curriculum at the Career and Technology Center. 

"He does such a wonderful job that we want him back every year.  He interacts well with the kids and he knows how to motivate them and to relate to them as individuals.  He gives them a sense of purpose and he has a true commitment to transforming these young adults," said Harrell.

Three years ago Franks read an article forecasting that 65 percent of South Carolina's workforce would be retiring in the near future.  "That time is now," said Franks. "We must keep a pipeline of young folks coming and the only way to do that is through the Technical Career Pathways program."

In just two years Tri-County's Technical Career Pathways (TCP) program has grown from seven students in one district to 166 students from all seven school districts. 

            Each program is unique to each district and includes pathways for Automotive Technology, Mechatronics, Industrial Electronics, HVAC and Welding. 

            In addition to developing pathways to support advanced manufacturing, next year pathways will be expanded to health, business and public services programs.  Like the technical pathways, students may be awarded TAP credit for articulated high school courses and begin taking college courses that give students a head start toward their associate degree.

Michael Dayne Chandler, a Wren High School graduate, earned college credit for six classes - two in the 11th grade and four in the 12th - all paid for by the state-funded proviso.

"When I first started the Mechatronics program I was not really sure if it was the profession that I wanted to pursue," said Chandler.  "After being in this program, I am certain that this is the correct career path for me. With the skills that I have learned I am positive that I will be successful in the Mechatronics workforce."

Chandler's goal is to graduate from Tri-County and obtain a good paying job in the Mechatronics field while pursuing a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.  He urged for continued funding for dual enrollment.  "Funding dual enrollment helps all students.  Funding is the key to establishing an educated workforce and giving students a chance for success," he said.

Students who once were considering a four-year degree are now looking to enroll at Tri-County this fall.  "They are realizing that mechatronics is booming in the Upstate and companies are looking for individuals with electrical and mechanical skills  - what they learned in these dual enrollment classes," said Franks.

Brett Johnson, a recent graduate of Belton-Honea Path High School, said, "I thought I wanted to be an engineer and I took this class and now I want to continue with Mechatronics at Tri-County. I'm getting college credit for a subject I'm really interested in."

Hank Johnson, a recent Wren High School graduate, is at USC in Columbia studying business management but says this Mechatronics class taught by Franks has given him a head start on fine tuning his work ethic --  something Franks preaches is as important as the technical skills.

"My guidance counselor recommended this class to me," said Hank.  He said he uses what he learns practically -- by applying the electrical/mechanical principles while working on his car and the remodeling work he and his father are doing on their home.  "It's the most fun and useful class I've ever had.  In here, you apply what you learn and can take it out of the classroom and use it," he said.

Parker Monteith, a recent graduate of Powdersville High School who headed to Tri-County's Mechatronics program this fall, says hands-on learning while doing is fun but he has taken it one step further - he learned how to think things through.  "Mr. Franks is fun and energetic and relates concepts to how we can understand them. These course have placed me ahead of the curve. By earning an associate degree at age 19, I'll be able to enter the workforce with skills that are in demand. I made the right career choice and this class helped me to determine that."

Says Brett Johnson, a graduate of Belton Honea Path High School, "Mr. Franks really cares if you learn the material."  Johnson entered the Mechatronics program this fall, also.

 "Students want to be here and want to succeed," said Harrell.  "Mr. Franks has a unique way of creating a community of learners.  They have mutual respect for each other and for him.  He creates a safe environment where they have a voice.  He sets an expectation and challenges them.  He forms a relationship and is respected and allows them personal responsibility for their learning.  He gives second chances when they make mistakes.  He really has made a difference at Anderson 1 and 2 Career and Technology Center."

Franks, who began teaching Tri-County courses three years ago at the Career Center, said the group of 15 seniors graduated at Tri-County's May commencement.  "They have done the same work as Tri-County students.  They really put the effort in to get the work done.  This is a family, a team," said Franks.  "What one does affects all of us, just like in industry.  When you grasp that, it changes your attitude about learning and it contributes to your maturity and your success.  Their teamwork will translate to their success in future jobs they have in manufacturing."