By Zane Turner Staff Writer
Aug. 26, 2023
Original Article Link

The renovation of a Fourth Avenue Northeast building is nearing completion and the Alabama Community College System plans to use it to collaborate with industry leaders to design courses that train workers.

The site of the old Decatur City Schools Central Office will act as a think tank and office for members of the Alabama Community College System Innovation Center. They will use the office to create custom training programs depending on an industry’s need, according to Houston Blackwood, Innovation Center workforce director.

“As we talk to a developer, … they come to us and say, ‘We would like our own basket-weaving course, how do we do that?’ So we sit down with them and find a subject-matter expert and then we build a task force around them,” Blackwood said. “Then we make a list of the main outline pieces, what are the main things they have to do? Once we do that we go back and we flush it out with a narrative, so it’s really well written. Then we build it into the online course and build the lab. Then the course goes back to the task force to get feedback.”

Community colleges across the state provide the courses once the curriculum is ready.

Blackwood said the writing and building aspects of the courses were outsourced, but the rest could be done at the building or via Zoom meetings.

“We serve every part of the state, so sometimes it’s not practical to bring everybody here,” Blackwood said.

He said the move into the refurbished building is underway, but they are still dealing with HVAC and lighting issues. They plan on having a grand opening in mid-October where they will invite community and industry leaders and local college presidents, according to Blackwood.

Those who enroll in the no-cost training classes will start with online instruction and be given a lab date to attend in-person at their local community college. There, the college will conduct the lab and give out accreditations to those who pass.

“Say Calhoun has a skid steer class, they’ll have 10 people working through the theory (online portion) and then they’ll say ‘in two weeks here’s your lab date.’ They’ll have to have that theory done by a certain day and they’ll all show up to the lab day,” Blackwood said.

He said other instructors can watch labs created by the Innovation Center and then become accredited to be able to teach that lab. This allows community colleges to use their own instructors.

He said he prefers for community colleges to use instructors they’re affiliated with to teach the lab because “they know them. It’s easier and no one is traveling a whole lot. But occasionally we’ll send (an instructor) from the north to south or vice versa,” Blackwood said. “They all have their own flavor. Coastal (Alabama Community College) is way different than Northeast (Alabama Community College), which is way different than (Wallace State-)Dothan. The online piece all stays the same and the lab is pretty much the same; they just may do it in a different place.”

With Gov. Kay Ivey announcing this month how $400 million in federal funding and over $1.4 billion from the U.S. Department of Commerce Broadband Equity would be used to roll out fiber optic internet in Alabama, the ACCS has started its fiber optic training class. Blackwood said the person who wrote the course for them is now going around and teaching other instructors to allow for a more broad outreach.

He said long-term goals for the ACCS are to be consistent statewide.

“When developers come to Alabama, we want them to see they’ve got these 10 things (instructionally) that they can do anywhere in the state,” Blackwood said. “So if I choose Coastal or Madison County, that training is exactly the same.”

The Innovation Center already has courses all over the state, including at Calhoun Community College. At Calhoun the ACCS offers Commercial Drivers License (CDL) B Certifications, CDL Passenger Endorsements and CDL School Bus Endorsements.

Jillian Christensen, the workforce project manager at Calhoun, said there were no simulators involved in their labs and that it was all done on their Decatur campus with their own instructors. She said she’s noticed a need in these areas.

“There’s definitely a need, especially for CDL drivers. That need is nationwide so they’re trying to fill those gaps in the employment industry by covering that tuition,” Christensen said.

She said they also plan to launch a food and beverage course with the ACCS.

Calhoun offers the CDL classes monthly so students have up to a year to complete the online portion. However, with other classes such as the heavy equipment operator, the lab date will already be set and the student will have to complete that course before the lab date, according to Christensen.

The state has a goal of adding 500,000 newly credentialed people to the workforce by 2025, and the Innovation Center says it “is committed to building a skilled workforce in Alabama through accessible, industry-recognized training programs that prepare individuals for successful careers.” For more information on ACCS training and programs visit its website at