SALT LAKE CITY — Looking back, Erika Ann Searle sees several reasons why beginning a welding career at Salt Lake Community College was the right choice.
Part of it stems from an engaged classroom experience.
"You get a lot of hands-on time," Searle said.
It's also about ambition, yearning for something that offers a challenge and fulfillment.
"It's not really a field that a lot of girls are in," she said.
This fall, Searle will complete an associate of applied science degree at the college's welding program. Next year, she plans to transfer to Weber State University to pursue a four-year welding engineering degree with the hope of becoming a certified welding inspector.
It's one of many technical fields that have evolved significantly in the past generation with the infusion of computer technology and other advancements. And that poses a challenge for higher education institutions, such as SLCC, in keeping pace with industry.
But SLCC is on the verge of what its leaders hope is a leap forward for students and the institution.
Construction is set to begin this week on a new facility to house more than a dozen of the college's career and technical education programs. SLCC's Westpointe Center, 2150 W. Dautless Ave., will provide 121,000 square feet of workspace for programs such as advanced composites, welding fabrication and inspection, solar energy, nondestructive testing, machining, diesel mechanics, and commercial driver licensing.
Many of those programs are currently housed in different SLCC campuses across the Salt Lake Valley. Putting them under one roof will provide a dedicated hub for instructors, administrators and industry partners. It will also facilitate a cross-pollination of skills and resources for students, according to Rick Bouillon, dean of SLCC's School of Technical Specialties.
"It will better serve our students because it will give them access to the latest and the highest level of technology in an environment that's conducive to that type of training," Bouillon said. "They need to understand other aspects of technology in order to better understand the main discipline they're in."
College leaders are scheduled to participate in a ceremonial groundbreaking Wednesday.
While Searle won't be around to see the doors open in fall of 2018, she said it's an upgrade from the current facilities that students will appreciate.
"There are some times when it can get a little crowded with all the different classes in there, especially when we've got to use certain machines," she said. "If they get more machines and a bigger facility, that would be helpful."
The new building will include 34 labs, eight classrooms, a 3-acre diesel truck driving range and new lab equipment. The project is largely funded from a $42.6 million appropriation from the state Legislature this year. Lawmakers also provided $3 million last year for pre-construction and design.
SLCC currently offers 106 credit certificate programs, 32 degree programs and 29 noncredit certificate programs, producing more than 27 percent of Utah's career and technical education graduates.
Demand for those trades is also on the rise, especially as the baby boom generation enters retirement, leaving vacancies in high-skill jobs in Utah and other places, Bouillon said.
In 2014, the northern half of the state saw almost 5,800 job openings in aeronautics, composites, diesel tech, electronics, welding, drivers and material testing.
"Our industry partners and our program advisory committees, they're clamoring for more qualified technicians in all of these areas to enter the workforce and join their teams," he said.
SLCC's student enrollment has steadily declined from a peak of 33,983 students in 2010 to 28,814 last year, a trend attributed largely to improving economic conditions in the state and the change in age requirements for missionaries of the LDS Church. But college leaders hope the new facility will draw new interest from prospective students.
"Having these programs co-located with the highest level of technology available will allow us to be better in recruiting those younger students and introducing them into a career that maybe they hadn't thought about previously," Bouillon said.