Area economic development partners and employers put their best foot forward Friday in trying to spark interest in local manufacturing and technology-related jobs with their second-annual Manufacturers and Technology Expo.

In the morning, about 300 eighth-graders from the seven middle schools in Sumter School District descended upon Central Carolina Technical College’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Training Center, 853 Broad St., and were greeted with numerous hands-on, interactive, industrial displays from area employers. In another area of the facility, students took part in a Jeopardy economic development challenge game, quizzing them on the importance of a skilled workforce to the area.

Event organizers said this year’s expo was designed to be more interactive to pique students’ interests more in the career opportunities available with area manufacturers and other major employers.

At a Thompson Construction Co. display, students raced each other in screwing large bolts into an assembly. At other locations, students got to program computerized robots and see the effects and put wheels on bicycles manufactured just down the road in Manning at Bicycle Corp. of America. Both of Sumter Caterpillar plants had displays, and they even brought an 8,800-pound skid steer loader for students to sit in and honk the horn, if they wanted.

Employers and organizers wanted to drive home the point that many of today’s manufacturing and industrial jobs aren’t about dirty buildings but instead use cutting-edge technology, according to Jim Shrift, area director of ReadySC, which is the training arm of the state technical college system.

Kodie Bird, who works at Kaydon, a Sumter manufacturer of bearings, shared her story to students of going off to a four-year university right after high school and not finding a fit for herself.

She then enrolled at Central Carolina Technical College and found her way to the Engineering Graphics Technology program, which involves computer-aided design and creating three-dimensional models, and really enjoyed it.

While still in the academic program, she worked a paid internship at Kaydon that helped pay for finishing her associate degree in the field. Now, she’s got a regular job at the plant, and Kaydon is paying for her coursework as she attends University of South Carolina Sumter, studying toward a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering.

Bird said students often get stuck on thinking they need to go off to a four-year university to find success.

“But if you’re not really sure what you want to do, start out at a technical college,” Bird said. “You can get your prerequisites out of the way and your basic classes, and you can transfer into something that you’re really going to enjoy and also not waste any time.”

On Friday, eighth-graders also took part in a tour of CCTC’s advanced manufacturing center and the three academic programs offered by the college on site: Engineering Graphics Technology, Mechatronics and Machine Tool.

Bates Middle School eighth-grader Dominion Simmons said she was most impressed with the Continental Tire the Americas booth and would like to eventually go to work for them because they are a major employer in Sumter.

Daniel Cuevas, a Furman Middle School eighth-grader, said the technical applications were most interesting to him at the expo. He said he wants to pursue a career as a computer information technologist.

Brian Rauschenbach, project manager with Sumter Economic Development Board, said he thought the expo had just the right flavor to interest students in solid careers locally.

“This event helps create a future plan for what to do next after high school graduation,” Rauschenbach said. “Talent is needed, and they are our future workforce, and they are our future champions in manufacturing and technology.”

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