Two-year institutions and their role in communities have been evolving for decades. Consider the case of Motlow State Community College (MSCC) in Tennessee. Over the last 50 years, the college has helped to transform the local employment landscape.
MSCC is the 35th fastest growing institution in the United States, serving an 11-county area with four campuses in Lynchburg, Fayetteville, McMinnville and Smyrna.
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Michael Torrence, the president of MSCC, to discuss the school’s evolution and its role in Tennessee and beyond. Dr. Torrence leads and serves on local, state, national, and international boards that influence and shape the future of higher education. Under his leadership, Motlow State has transformed into a cutting-edge, award-winning institution on multiple fronts.
What role do you believe community colleges play in rural America and how do you want people to see MSCC?
Michael Torrence: Community colleges in rural America serve as hubs. Hubs of innovation. Hubs of social mobility. Hubs of economic and communal development. Hubs of equity and courageous conversations. Community colleges continue to be steadfast in their focused mission of continued improvement and open access. The training and learning that leads to positive opportunities in rural America begin with what we know to be actual in our communities that trades and skills are as important as pathways to ongoing or life-long learning that end in credentials and degrees. We recognize that formal education and trade skills are indeed educational parallels. Our ability to deconstruct differentiation between skills/trades and educational attainment provides a backdrop to successful communities. I trust that our communities see Motlow State Community College as a hub within the community. Our connection to securing a future for rural America depends on our ability to stay connected while responsibly responding to the current and emergent needs of both shrinking and growing footprints within our landscape.
What sets MSCC apart from other Community Colleges?
Torrence: Demography at this point in time has situated us within and adjacent to some of the fastest growing locations by county within the United States and Tennessee. We have the tremendous luxury of “location, location, location” while residing in southern middle Tennessee near Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, Uncle Nearest, Pritchard’s, Jacobs, Microcraft, Tullahoma Industries, SISM&S, AEDC, Nissan, Bridgestone, and many other globally recognized brands. We are open to longitudinal and immediate partnerships with business, industry and community. The creative space occupied by design thinking and made in Tennessee entrepreneurship is critical to our enterprise and ecosystem. We are thankful to be among the top 35 fastest growing post-secondary institutions in the nation. Growth sets us apart and we are accelerating our support of our communities, students and employees. Balancing and successfully meeting their needs will allow our growth to positively impact sustainable practices for years to come. Additionally, we have strategically invested in our technological infrastructure and training our employees on cutting-edge tools that we know will prepare our organization to provide the instructional/training practices that incoming and returning learners expect. We also recognize that we must focus on our need to improve the critical thinking growth across all of our programs, which is necessary to prepare graduates’ and skilled trainees’ broader options. We believe this approach will help members of our communities move beyond generational poverty and in other cases create sustainable upward mobility.
What retraining programs has Motlow been working on to contribute to workforce development?
Torrence: Retraining and training are synonymous for us at Motlow State Community College. Our focus on apprenticeships and creating strong pathways to employment is necessary. We have doubled down on the important areas referred to by industry partners in the areas of IT, health care, cyber, AI, logistics and supply chain, sustainability, and emergent technology use in the spirits industry. The programs we are most excited about are the newer partnerships we have with Hamilton-Ryker, Irby, Southern Controls, WESCO, Rockwell Automation, OMRON, Ready Robotics, FESTO, GlobalMindEd, Jack Daniel’s, Silicon Ranch and Uncle Nearest. Further, we are strengthening our partnerships with current partners Bridgestone, Nissan, Yorozu, ABB, FANUC Robotics. We will continue bringing jobs into the area with our Tennessee ECD and DOL agencies. We continue our commitment to advancing soft-skill development and the arts.
You have several corporate partnerships that produce talent in the region. How many different industries do you work with and what are some of the partnerships you’ve recently acquired?
Torrence: We work with all industries and to place a number on it would be inaccurate and saying it is infinite would also be inaccurate. I’d like to say our work as an institution is indefatigable with the business and industry partners across our 11-county and 4,500-square-mile service area. Most recently, we have strengthened or locked in relationships with Uncle Nearest, UTSI, Jacobs, various airport authorities, county government, sustainable energy companies and municipalities like Silicon Ranch, Cumberland Springs Land Company, State of Tennessee agencies focused on sustainability, labor and workforce. We also have creative partnerships with various technology companies like Lobaki, Doghead Simulations, Parker, Mitsubishi, Bertlekamp, and continue to deepen several robotics and mechatronics relationships within and outside of Tennessee.
When COVID-19 hit, what opportunities did you see in the challenges that were ahead of you?
Torrence: We have faced it — the challenge is the opportunity, and we see access as an opportunity in this transitioning economic climate. We see actionable spaces to create different connective points in this climate. Those spaces included a crisscrossing and further interlacing our various division operational implementation. There are no commas between Academic Affairs - Student Success - Workforce and Community Development - Friendraising - Educators as Entrepreneurs and so forth. Demonstrating that we have been and always will be better together as more than a platitude is essential. Our institution was and is already walking toward a design-centered approach to leveraging training and instructional andragogy and pedagogy. Enhanced offerings take the genius of our faculty, staff, and administrative team to make deployment of dynamic modalities work. We, like others in Tennessee and across the nation, are doing all we can to support and churn forward our economies. The exemplary manner in which we transformed ushered in a need for complimentary training and more of this is needed. We have also seen the continued need to connect services related to mental health and wellness for everyone touched by or through our institution. The uptick in safety needs that are PPE and also related beyond standards of TNDOH and CDC guidance is important to us. We could not imagine the developments needed and we have certainly created safe space, but we will continue to do more. A standard of health, safety, and wellness can be exceeded and that’s our intention. We want to make certain that our responses were not reactive, but intentional and purposeful. We care and exemplify the care via our actions. People matter most.
What key components have you implemented because of COVID-19 that you will continue with long after the pandemic?
Torrence: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. The use of multimodal communication platforms has increased our effectiveness as well as fatigued our sensory perceptions. Fatigue is a reality that we are all working through within organizations. Consequently, as much as information surrounding health, safety, and wellness needs to be shared, creating important across-organization input gatherings through our Pandemic Emergency Response Team (PEMT) stretched our collective organizational consciousness and continues to keep us COVID-19 aware. Our structured and organic efforts continue to play a tremendous role in a high overall college-wide aptitude about our day-to-day health success.
Let’s switch gears and talk technology — what kind of capabilities does your new robotics building have?
Torrence: The Automation Robotics Training Center (ARTC) is the state of the art and cutting-edge facility in the state of Tennessee focused on workforce training. We can offer on-site training certifications in four days with our relationship with FANUC, ABB and Yaskawa (Motoman) robotics training. Additionally, we have the ability to bring our training to respective partners using mobile transportation or our robotics. What’s newest with our training options is our ability to utilize vision systems and XR (extended reality) to provide training in an augmented or immersive environment. We are pleased to be able to use distributive training as a method to meet our industry training needs. We also have welding and can create customizable solutions to industry needs. This location is exciting and located to make a difference in the OEM, cyber, health care, mechatronics and logistics arenas. This meets the needs of the 3,000 plus robots within a 250-mile radius of our five Motlow State Community College locations. We have a certified FANUC (FAST) and Yaskawa trainer on-site. We partner with corporations to facilitate access to state-of-the-art training where we do not have a certified trainer on-site. The aforementioned flexible partnerships are sustainable and have been successful thus far. Lastly, our relationships with ABB, Yaskawa and FANUC, the worlds three largest robotics companies, allow Motlow the opportunity to meet industry needs with agility. We continue to expand and seek new partnerships in the Southeast.
Tell me about your XR Lab and the variety of people that utilize it?
Torrence: The XR Lab is an Immersive Training and Teaching space utilizing emergent tools for vision casting and skills development. It’s a part of our TILT (Teaching Innovation Learning & Training) process too. We have been working with health care, pre-K through 12 Districts, OEMs, State Agencies from Labor, Entertainment, Economic Development, Faith-based groups, recovery and addictions groups, other states and agencies across the U.S., and also simply providing immersive training experiences for those new to the technology within the metaverse. We will create spaces for skilled credentialing and degree pathways in this emergent area.