For most people the word "mechatronics" may as well be something ripped out of a science-fiction novel in which robots have enslaved humanity. But for a handful of Catoosa County students, it's about to be their lives.
Georgia Northwestern Technical College is throwing open the doors to its new campus in Ringgold today, and included in the curriculum are several fields of study designed to equip the next generation of students.
The Ringgold school, one of six Georgia Northwestern Tech campuses in the region, will offer three new programs — mechatronics, cybersecurity and logistics — in addition to core and introductory college courses for the 130 students enrolled for the fall semester.
Leaders at the 60,000-square-foot facility say technical training is coming not a moment too soon, because the region has a burgeoning need for highly skilled workers.
"Now and in the next few years, a huge number of technical and skilled workers will be retiring, and these jobs will need to be filled," said Leigh Ann Pettigrew, interim manager for the Catoosa County branch. "We are very excited about the new campus opening up and being here for our Catoosa County community."
Pettigrew said the three new specialties are especially suited to Catoosa County, and she highlighted the need for each in and around Ringgold.
"Transportation is a large part of our community with [Interstate 75] and the Murray County inland port and distribution in our area," she said about the logistics program. The same need is also apparent in mechatronics and cybersecurity as industries in the county grow, she added.
County government personnel praised the school's opening, saying it would help satisfy the demands of already established businesses while attracting new entrepreneurs.
"Our industry, they're always looking for skilled labor," said Katie Thomason, economic development coordinator for the Catoosa County economic development authority.
"Soft skills and things like that are pretty much the No. 1 problem," she said. "And it's a nationwide problem, it's not just a Catoosa County problem. Just getting the right worker that's educated and that can be there on time and show up for work and can communicate and knows important skills that they need."
And more than just college students are expected to benefit. About a quarter of the enrollees are high-schoolers who have dual-enrolled to get a jump on their postsecondary education, officials said.
"This is just a gift to be able to do high school and college at the same time," said Dr. Trish Schimpf, high school improvement specialist for the Catoosa County school system.
"These are opportunities that I didn't have in my lifetime, and even students five years ago didn't necessarily have all of this lined up for the perfect fit that it is now," she said.
Dual enrollment allows high school students to start building up college credit, and as long as they are enrolled at a public school in Catoosa County they can do it free of charge at Georgia Northwestern Tech.
Depending on what courses they take, those high schoolers will either be taught in their own high schools or will travel to the college campus during the school day. A grant provided by the Georgia Student Finance Authority will allow the county to provide free transportation.
"It's just another way to make high school fit for students," Schimpf said. "And [GNTC] has bent over backwards to make this program work. They want our kids; we want our kids to go there and to experience that while in high school."
For students who don't plan on getting a degree there, it still wouldn't hurt to look at taking a few classes because many will transfer to other four-year institutions, officials said. Students will need to check with advisers to be certain about their own schedules, but many core and introductory courses are an easy switch.
Chuck Cantrell, associate vice chancellor of marketing and communication at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the university has transfer equivalency agreements with its neighbor across the state border and plenty of students have transferred over the years.
"North Georgia is an area of high interest in UTC," he said. "The students feel very connected to the Chattanooga community."
And for those students who feel that out-of-state tuition is financially prohibitive, there are opportunities to help cut down on the sticker price. Georgia students with at least 60 credit hours can pay the cost of in-state tuition plus 25 percent instead of the full out-of-state price.
But even if students don't end up transferring to UTC, Cantrell said, having more educational options is only a good thing.
"There's such a great need for more college grads in this region that anything that helps provide opportunity for postsecondary education, we applaud," he said.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow on Twitter @emmettgienapp.