Some Bamberg County industry leaders say Denmark Technical College has become irrelevant for providing local industries a pipeline of skilled and trained workers.
"I have a lot of concern for Denmark Tech," Bamberg's Phoenix Specialty owner and Chief Executive Officer Robert Hurst said. "We have no relationship with them at the present time."
Phoenix Specialty employs about 96 according to the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance. The company manufacturers gauges of brass, copper, phosphor bronze, stainless steel and aerospace nickel alloys.
From a curriculum point of view, Hurst, who served on the Denmark Tech commission about a decade ago, says the metal-working trades provided at the school "have really died."
"There is really nothing Denmark Tech has to offer," Hurst said. "There are some programs (manufacturing certification program) that might provide us with an applicant, but we have not received any applications from their students."
"Welding and many of the traditional classes (electrical, plumbing) have been ignored for many, many years," he said. "A welding program could be successful in this area."
School officials themselves, including former college commission Chairman Thomas Williams, as well as political leaders such as Orangeburg Sen. Brad Hutto have publicly noted the school's welding lab is not in accordance with standards and using equipment from the 1960s.
"Welders cannot be trained on outdated equipment," SCA Vice President of Marketing Kay Maxwell said when asked about the situation at DTC. "Our technical schools should have cutting-edge equipment so that welders can be trained on the proper equipment."
"The technical college needs qualified, skilled instructors utilizing up-to-date equipment," she said. "I know that in other areas of the state, the local tech colleges collaborate with local industries in getting the right equipment to train students for local jobs."
SCA is an economic development marketing arm for Bamberg, Barnwell, Allendale counties. The alliance also consists of Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties.
The college has taken steps to become more relevant in that it has just finished renovating its biology and chemistry labs, which will enable students to have updated, state-of-the art labs with running water and gas.
But is it too little too late for the beleaguered college, which has seen its fair share of challenges?
Earlier in February, the State Tech Board, which governs the 16-college South Carolina Technical College System, issued a letter to state government leaders recommending that Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College take over DTC's service area, saying the school can no longer operate as a standalone college.
The letter cites a number of reasons for the recommendation, including "irreparable problems stemming from declining enrollment, a lack of financial stability and neglected facilities" at Denmark Tech.
The letter cites the college's declining enrollment over the past several years from 1,678 in fall 2014 to 523 in fall 2017.
The letter notes that this past fall, 406 students residing in the three-county service area -- Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell -- opted to attend one of the surrounding technical colleges instead of Denmark Tech.
It stated that a majority of those students (318) chose to attend OCtech.
The letter also cites the past two fiscal year audits as revealing material weaknesses and significant deficiencies in internal controls with the college’s unrestricted net position decreasing by $4.8 million (approximately 70 percent) from a balance of $6.9 million as of June 30, 2015, to a balance of $2.1 million as of June 30, 2017."
Hurst said his hopes are that OCtech will expand its offerings as Phoenix will need to tap into the trained workforce. Hurst said turnover at the company has been low over the past few years.
Due to the low turnover, most hires tend to be entry level and receive on-the-job training, Hurst.
But for college-level training, the company uses OCtech.
"We have also used training (job skills/very direct & specific) from SCMEP; they are short-duration classes," Hurst said.
In addition, the company is active with a trade association and will be participating in a new web-based training site that is very specific to the industry.
"Our HR administrator is aware of most of the financial assistance that is available," Hurst said. The assistance is welcome but is not a big concern of ours."
Despite challenges facing the school today, Hurst said it was not always that way.
He noted a couple of decades ago, Phoenix's relationship with Denmark Tech was working well.
As a point of fact, he said the company has four employees that have either graduated from the college or attended classes there.
"They attended years ago (20 years); none of them are recent graduates," he said.
But Hurst said meeting industrial needs is just the surface of the college's challenges.
"The mission of every technical college is about raising the technical skills/education levels of the area students so that they graduate and move to a better career or go forward into higher education," Hurst said. "When you look at the graduation rates, the student turnover with no degrees or certifications, you have an institution that is not functioning."
"Denmark Tech should be an asset for our industrial recruiting but that is not the case," he said.
Maxwell said generally local industries have informed the alliance that they need certain skills from those coming to work for them.
These include Computer Numerically Controlled operators and programmers, welders, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and safety training as well as basic forklift training.
"More importantly, our industries said that often they simply need trainable employees with good basic math skills who understand the importance of working as a team, personal responsibility and leadership skills," Maxwell said. "Our industries also want job candidates who have a general understanding of manufacturing principles."
Maxwell says the SCA has "been engaged assisting Denmark Tech for years."
"We have met with the leadership there many times, made presentations to the staff, sponsored training courses, offered training sites and equipment," she said. "Our goal is to see that the young and adult workers in this region are connected to the good jobs here in the region."
A number of industries in Bamberg County contacted for this story said they have not heard from the college and do not have any type of workforce training agreement with Denmark Tech.
Greg Pierce, president of Bamberg's Black Water Barrels, is an example. The company manufactures liquor barrels just south of Bamberg on U.S. 301.
"I don't have any relationship with them," he said. "No one has come to speak me about anything."
He said that is not for the lack of need or jobs.
"We are hiring right now," said Pierce, noting the company could see an additional 50 to 60 employees as it enters into additional contracts with distilleries. "We are going to a second shift."
The company employs about 23 on one shift.
Pierce said though the cooperage industry is specialized, wood-grading and other woodworking skill sets are desired.
"I would not mind working with them," he said about DTC. "They (DTC officials) are not the most aggressive group."
Instead, Pierce said Black Water has seen successful hires through word of mouth and some advertising.
Pierce said in order to train its employees initially, the company hired a fourth-generation cooper from Switzerland. Another operated a Napa Valley cooperage, Demptos Napa Cooperage, and Mendocino Cooperage.
Now all the training is done in-house and that is working just fine, Pierce said.
DTC officials have attempted to do a number of things over the past year to improve or enhance its workforce training link.
Interim College President Christopher Hall said the college gives students insight into careers in engineering and science through its Project Lead the Way program.
Hall said the college has also been in contact with readySC and Apprenticeship SC officials in relation to training opportunities in the fields of industrial maintenance and megatronics.
The college has also sought to evaluate academic program productivity.
Certificate programs on the chopping block due to lack of enrollment and interest include: administrative support, computer servicing and repair, criminal justice, gerontology, multimedia web graphics design, premedical and web processing. One associate degree program, administrative office, is also recommended for elimination.
The programs could be discontinued before the next school year.
A certificate program is for individuals already in a profession desiring to enhance their skill sets.
Two programs the college wants to enhance are megatronics and industrial maintenance.
In the interim, Hurst is hoping for the best.
"I live in Denmark and want to see the school succeed," Hurst said. "There are some very dedicated teachers at the school who truly care about the students."