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Touted as a ‘game-changer,’ OTC’s new Plaster Manufacturing Center prepares to welcome students

Numerous local politicians and dignitaries attended a ribbon-cutting for Ozarks Technical Community College's new Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing on Monday, August 15, 2022.
Gregory Holman/KSMU
Numerous local politicians and dignitaries attended a ribbon-cutting for Ozarks Technical Community College's new Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing on Monday, August 15, 2022.

Ozarks Technical Community College held a ribbon-cutting Monday for its big new Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing. College officials and politicians praised the $40 million project.

It’s intended to be a “game-changer" by meeting a shortage of skilled workers and creating a new pathway toward better-paying work.

Springfield and the Ozarks have a workforce problem.

Most people in the greater metro who want a job already have one. The latest unemployment data show a stunningly low 1.9 percent unemployment rate for the Springfield area.

But poverty is chronic: In Springfield, 21.7 percent of residents are poor. That level's been cut down significantly since 2015, but Springfield’s poverty rate remains almost twice as high as the overall U.S.

For decades, local leaders have seen education beyond high school as the main way to push back against the problem.

In 2018, OTC promised area voters that if they backed a 5-cent property tax increase, the college would add the manufacturing center and other facilities. 55 percent of voters agreed. OTC secured $12 million in Missouri funding, along with donations from the Plaster family and others, to pay for the new manufacturing center. It broke ground almost two years ago.

Hal Higdon is OTC’s chancellor. He encouraged people who want to earn more money to check out Plaster Center programs.

“Well, you know if you’re working — which most people are — and you’re in poverty, that means you need advanced training," Higdon told reporters Monday. "This is what this building’s really designed for. So what we need to do is to get those people who — the best word I can think of is underemployed — into these programs. With Fast Track, in particular, they can go to school for free. There’s no excuse not to go. So the best way to fight poverty is education. The best education is a community college education.”

Higdon referenced Missouri’s new Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant. That's a state program that picks up the tab for adults age 25 and older seeking training — if they pursue a certificate or degree in an industry that Missouri declares to be “high-need.”

Grant applications for this fall’s eligible programs are set to go live soon, according to the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development. Higdon said most OTC programs are eligible.

Higdon also says jobs in today's manufacturing sector — an industry replete with automation and robotics technologies — can pay very well.

“The pay range for business and industry manufacturing starts in the $40s and up," he said, referencing hourly wages, "so there are people that are coming out of programs such as these making $70,000; $80,000 per year. So it’s very much not your old parents’ idea of manufacturing. It’s not dirty, it’s not unsafe, it’s clean.”

The new manufacturing center offers seven types of training programs including automation and robotics; mechatronics; and precision machining.

At opening ceremonies, a community celebration

Monday's grand opening was a community celebration.

Matt Morrow is president and CEO of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. The group held its most recent “Good Morning Springfield” event at the new center.

“This is an absolute game-changer for our community. It’s one of the three or four projects that 50 years from now we’ll look back on and say that changed it entirely — and for the better.”

OTC estimates that over 10 years, Plaster Manufacturing Center will have a $400 million impact on the Ozarks.

The college also announced the first company to use the Plaster Center’s 15,000-square-foot high bay space will be DT Engineering, an automation technology firm based in Lebanon.

Students will begin learning at Plaster Manufacturing Center on August 22.

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.