INA – When US Rep. John Shimkus presented a $1.6M energy grant to Rend Lake College Wednesday morning, he spoke of the important role community colleges play in training a workforce to meet the nation’s growing need for energy.
“The benefit of what the community college system does is its ability to turn around and fulfill the need for a trained workforce,” Shimkus said. “We need highly trained professionals. A highly-skilled workforce is what is going to keep us ... competitive.”
As a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Shimkus (R-Illinois-19) has first-hand knowledge of how important alternative energy sources are to the nation, especially in an age of escalating demand for power through added consumers and more technology than ever.
“If we don’t expand the current industry ... how are we going to meet that increased demand,” he said.
In anticipation of an expansion to coal mining operations in Southern Illinois and new producers entering the market, the RLC Board of Trustees decided in 2006 to bring back the college’s coal mining technology program which had been sized down dramatically as a result of the decline in area operations decades ago. When coal was booming, President Mark S. Kern said, the coal program was placing 97 percent of its graduates at area mines. By the early 1980s, RLC could not place a graduate anywhere.
Now, with a consensus that coal could have a comeback, the college is once again positioning itself to be a training leader. The $1.6M grant through President Bush’s Community-Based Job Training Grants initiative will help RLC do just that.
Many individuals representing local government, industry and organizations have pitched in their support. Kern introduced numerous supporters seated in the RLC Theatre during the ceremony Wednesday morning.
Shimkus pointed out the positive effect a coal resurgence would have on the area. For the individual, he mentioned good paying jobs in mine construction, refinery construction and mining. For local government, there is the beneficial increase in tax base from new producers and residents, and a better local economy due to workers buying goods and services. And for the nation, he said alternative fuel sources decrease reliance on imported oil and provide the US Air Force – which can use coal that has been turned into jet fuel – with a viable alternative to foreign sources for energy, thus strengthening national security. He also said that Southern Illinois coal operations provide a centralized region for coast-to-coast dispersal of coal.
Kern accepted the $1,622,155 from the US Department of Labor on behalf of the college. Shimkus said it is a sign that the USDL realizes the importance of creating energy from fossil fuels.
RLC will use the funding to boost its growing coal mining technology program by training a proposed 420 coal mining technology students; bring dual-credit classes in mining technology to area high schools in Benton, Pinckneyville, Sesser, Christopher and Hamilton County; and raise students’ awareness about occupations in the coal industry at 15 area grade schools.
Kern specified that approximately $700,000 will go toward purchasing equipment, $600,000 is for contractual training, $60,000 is to purchase supplies, and $200,000 is for personnel.
RLC’s competitive grant proposal was one of 69 chosen from among 341 applications the USDL received in response to a competition announced Aug. 8.
Area supporters of RLC’s competitive grant proposal are organizations like the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals, American Coal, Plumbers and Pipefitters, Peabody Coal, MantraCon, Southern Illinois Coal Resource Center, Sugar Camp Energy, Franklin County Tech Prep, local unions of the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Bechtel Corporation. They include area leaders like Benton Mayor Gary Kraft, Mt. Vernon Mayor Mary Jane Chesley, McLeansboro Mayor Dick Dietz, Pinckneyville Mayor Joseph Holder; area County Board Chairmans Randall Crocker of Franklin County, Ted Buck of Jefferson County, Donald Mitchell of Hamilton County, and Jim Booker of Perry County; FREDCO VP Ken Burzynski; and CTNA Plant Manager Hank Eisenga.
Kern thanked Shimkus and credited the hard work of RLC administrators and staff who were influential in RLC being selected in the grant competition. They include former Resource Development Specialist Trudee Wynn, Vice President Dr. Jim Hull, Applied Science and Technology Division Chair Dr. Sarah Bond, Industrial Maintenance Professor Chris Nielsen, Mining Technology Instructor Dave Colombo, and Welding Professor Dave Smith. Kern himself played a large role in the research and preparation of the proposal.
“As anything that is successful, it is a team approach,” he said. “No one person is solely responsible for bringing in this grant.”