Educators Describe Firsthand ‘Immersion’ Experiences in Manufacturing

When Elizabeth Crocker prepared to spend her first day at Prysmian Power Cables & Systems this summer, she did not expect to be awed — literally awed — by the global impact of a local company in the quiet, pastoral enclave of Abbeville County. 

“What I thought was most valuable about the experience was to realize what all Greenwood, Newberry, Abbeville, and Laurens produce for the world. That was kind of mind-blowing to me,” she said. “Abbeville produces cables to power whole cities!”

An English teacher at Dixie High School, Crocker was one of 21 educators in the region participating in the grant-funded Workplace Immersion Project, which this summer offered teachers and counselors a firsthand view of the advanced manufacturing work environments around the Piedmont Technical College (PTC) seven-county service region. PTC is the lead organization in the multi-agency partnership to help educators fully inform students about opportunities available in growing tech-based industries. Several of them shared their experiences at a celebratory luncheon in July.

To say that Crocker was impressed with Prysmian is an understatement. “Prysmian has an order to do all the high-voltage wire for all of Washington, DC, so Abbeville County is basically going to power the Capital!” she said. “Realizing that impact of just how significant that plant is having for our country and for the world, that was the biggest ‘wow.’ The second ‘wow’ was realizing how much of a stable living can be made at the plant. It really changed my perspective.”

Crocker noted that several employees have been at Prysmian for up to 30 years, which is a great indicator of the quality and income potential of the jobs. It also is an indicator that the company will need new talent to replace older workers who have pending retirement plans. In recent months, there is a concerted effort to recruit female workers. 

Three of Crocker’s recent graduates were interested enough to take tours of the plant. Two actually completed applications, and one was hired the same day. She has been featured in billboards advertising job opportunities at Prysmian. 

“My students can earn more than I do, right out of high school, if they have a strong work ethic,” Crocker said. “One of my Dixie graduates is on the Prysmian billboard. I am excited about that. She was hired right out of high school and soon will make more than I do after 13 years in teaching! … These are really good jobs. Prysmian is competitive regarding wages, full benefits, et cetera.”

Gwen McAllister, lead guidance counselor at Mid-Carolina High School in Prosperity, had her immersion experience at MacLean Power Systems in Newberry. She says it significantly broadened her understanding of what today’s manufacturing plant looks like.

“Most of the time, when I think of factories, I think only of assembly lines,” she said. “Then I saw how many aspects there were to it. Everyone has a role, yet it’s so very organized. Everyone had different levels of education for different types of jobs. It surprised me the different opportunities that can be available in manufacturing.”

McAllister spent time in every department at MacLean and shadowed several department heads, providing a well-rounded immersion. “I got to see quality control. I got to see engineers bring in a new $1 million machine. I got to see product specialists deal with customers. I got to see the accounting and supply management departments. … All of my students could have a job in manufacturing. Manufacturing is good. That is one light that came on for me. There’s such a variety of jobs. Anybody can have a job in manufacturing and make a good living.”

Aju Alfred is a science teacher at Laurens Preparatory Academy. He completed his immersion at West Fraser’s Newberry Mill, which makes diversified wood products. Like McAllister, the workplace he visited was not what he expected.

“This was the first time I have been inside a manufacturing facility,” he said. “I had a negative bias against manufacturing in the beginning but found a quality workplace. I worked in most of the departments. It was a wonderful experience. It changed my perspective.”

Alfred noted that when young people leave high school, they should have a basic knowledge of computers because they are prevalent in most work settings, including manufacturing. They also should be able to analyze data and communicate effectively with their supervisors. He hopes soon to invite an engineer and HR executive from West Fraser to speak to his classes. Alfred’s experience left him impressed with the breadth of opportunities that are available locally.

“Even if you are a high school graduate, you can get a job right here in your hometown,” he said. “There are a lot of job opportunities.” 

All of the educators expressed a willingness to do the immersion again if given the opportunity in another industry. Many are working to incorporate their new knowledge into their conversations with students and lesson plans. “I look forward to working that into my conversations this coming school year,” Crocker said. “I’ve been talking with our principal about it and hope to get something done by this spring.”

•    Laurens Preparatory Academy science teacher Aju Alfred 
•    Dixie High School English teacher Elizabeth Crocker
•    Mid-Carolina High School guidance counselor Gwen McAllister
•    Workplace Immersion educators gather for a group photo