- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Students at South Carolina’s Midlands Technical College can study to become anything from a dental hygienist to an industrial electrical technician.

But educators and employers say many students also need to learn more non-technical, or “soft skills,” such as time management, working in groups, developing good communication skills, and managing stress while juggling school, family and financial pressures.

With a recent $1 million gift, the two-year school has set up a new center to help its students learn life skills that many people might take for granted.

“We have to get across that they will be entering another culture - the workplace,” said Dr. Martha Hanks, a dentist who heads the school’s Department of Health Sciences.

“For example, your heart might be in the right place, and you may have the grades to work in a hospital environment. But you also have to have the focus, the maturity, the ability to show up on time and in a clean uniform,” said Hanks, who has taught at the school for 25 years. “I have students who don’t look me in the eye, or just mumble when they speak. Now they have a place to help them prepare for interviews and work on their communication skills.”

The $1 million donation - the largest ever given the school - came from Bill and Lou Kennedy, who recently built Nephron Pharmaceuticals manufacturing plant in nearby Lexington County. The center was named the William Jerry Wood Life Skills Center, in honor of Lou Kennedy’s father, who taught at Midlands.

“Qualified employees are a priceless asset, and area employers like Nephron are eager to hire them,” said Lou Kennedy. “Given the tremendous importance of soft skills to workplace success, Bill and I wanted to make an investment that would help the college conduct soft skills training in a way that was centralized and accessible.”

Ameache Epps Grady, a coordinator at the center, pointed out that almost all of the technical students hold down jobs that can add stress to school and family life.

“If students encounter academic difficulties, we can draw up a specialized ‘individual success plan’ to help guide them. We can refer them for tutoring or other instruction and help them stay on track,” said Grady.

The new center is located at the school’s campus near the Columbia airport in West Columbia. Similar centers will be set up at the school’s five other campuses around the capital city area, said Carla Kaiser, the center’s director.

“This will be at no cost to the student,” said Kaiser. While some students might seek the help on their own, Kaiser said others might be referred for help by their instructors or even sought out by center staff.

First semester student Sarah Richardson said she sought help doing research and organizing data for a paper.

“It’s been extremely helpful to me,” said the 19-year-old, who said she wants to be an attorney someday. “Like with writing citations and things. Without the tutor’s help, I would be totally lost.”

Using videos, workshops, and special short-term classes, the center’s coordinators will delve into issues like understanding a work ethic, working under pressure, adopting problem solving skills and even dealing with difficult people. Presentations are planned for helping students navigate other issues like personal budgeting, managing school loans, and understanding banks versus using pay-day lenders, Kaiser said.

Midlands Tech has about 18,000 students attending technical classes year round, while some 30,000 people register for continuing education coursework, school officials said.

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