'Making it happen'

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In troubled economy, local BCTC campus sees tremendous growth

By Shannon Brock

Over the years, when John Pitts drove past the Lawrenceburg campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, he thought to himself, “If I get a chance to go to college, that’s where I want to go.”

Pitts, 44, started his first full year at the college this fall, but he didn’t quite think it would happen this way.

He worked for four years at Topy America in Frankfort making aluminum wheels, but two years ago, the company decided to stop producing its aluminum line, and with that decision went over 200 jobs.

Pitts, who lives in Versailles, was afforded unemployment, but that “ran out” after a while. Then, he received a TRA, or trade readjustment allowance, but he knew that wouldn’t last forever.

“The jobs I could have gotten aren’t that good,” said Pitts, who didn’t graduate from high school, but earned his GED. “A lot of [other] people were studying, getting retrained, so I decided to come back to school.”

Pitts is not alone. He stands as an example of a growing trend.

The Lawrenceburg campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College has seen a 46 percent increase in enrollment from last year to this year.

The campus is now the educational home of about 800 students, and while the growth can’t fully be attributed to layoffs and people in search of a second career, most of it can be attributed to a troubled economy.

“When unemployment is up, college enrollment goes up,” said Rhonda Wheeler, the Lawrenceburg campus liaison. “People are realizing they need new skills to compete in the workforce.”

Wheeler said some of the college’s newer programs are attracting students as well. The campus’ two-year RN program draws a lot of new students, as well as programs like fire science and construction technology.

It was the construction technology program that caught Pitts’ eye.

Pitts first considered something with computers or in business, “but I saw people in business management losing their jobs, too,” he said.

He chose construction because it’s in his blood.

Pitts’ father, uncle, grandfather and brother all worked in construction at one time or another.

“I’ve been around it my whole life,” he said. “I grew up with it. It’s a trade I’ve always known.”

Pitts never though he would end up working in construction, but “I’ve gone back to it,” he said.

Pitts (or Johnny Flat Top, as his classmates call him) is in his second semester at the college, but this is his first full year at the school. His carpentry class is “fun.” His computer class is “hard, but fun.” But math — math is a different story.

“Math is a doozie,” he said. “I’ve never done algebra. Each day we have a different set of rules.”

Pitts is pursuing a diploma in construction technology, but the college also offers a certificate and an associate degree in that field of study.

Associate degrees incorporate general education classes, Wheeler said, whereas certificate and diploma programs are more field specific. Typically, it takes the most time to earn an associate degree and the least time to earn a certificate.

The Lawrenceburg campus offers the 10 programs — business management and marketing, office systems technology, medical information technology, nurse aide, nursing (RN), fire science technology, emergency medical technician, interdisciplinary early childhood education, human service and construction technology.

The college also offers general education transfer courses.

“We’re more than just a technical college,” Wheeler said. “We’re the best kept secret in this town.”

Students range in age from 16 (classes are offered to high school seniors at a reduced rate) to 83, and a lot of students are in their 40s and 50s, Wheeler said.

“A lot of times they’re pretty scared,” she said. “But you have to look at it as an opportunity and a window opened.

“You’re getting a new career in life.”

Pitts is looking forward to his new career, and he has a lot of goals for when he completes his studies.

“I want to open a shop where I can fix and remodel furniture,” he said. “I love finding broken things on the side of the road and fixing them and making them look new.”

Pitts also wants to make “better and stronger” cabinets than what he has seen on the market.

“I want to do good work, so you can get a quality product,” he said.

“I want my own place with my own tools. I know it will be hard to get going, but I believe I can make it happen.”

E-mail Shannon Mason Brock at sbrock@theandersonnews.com.