By Zachary Horner, The Sanford Herald
SANFORD - An official from Gov. Pat McCrory's office spent time in Lee County Sept. 9 and walked away impressed with what she saw.
Catherine Truitt, the governor's senior education advisor who works to improve education at all grade levels within the state, said she visited because she wanted to see more of Lee County's integration of education and the workforce. She toured Mertek Solutions and visited Central Carolina Community College, speaking with community leaders about the work that is being done.
"It's always better to see something in action than to read about," Truitt said. "It's so great to see some place take advantage of every program I'm reading about on paper. Lee County is definitely ahead of the game. And I can't get over everything that I've seen. I haven't been anywhere where I've seen that kind of partnership between the community college and an industry partner."
Mertek designs and builds custom-ordered assembly machines for various industries, among other products, in its factory on Hawkins Avenue near Deep River. It list Fortune 500 companies and start-ups among its clients. On a tour of the Mertek facility led by company president Jerry Pedley, Truitt saw machines responsible for making car parts, quality-checking caps for Tide detergent bottles and laser-welding pieces of pacemakers. Mertek has hired many workers directly from CCCC, some while they're still in school.
"What they really provide the most is a product," Pedley said. "They're providing us a product we can work with. Mertek needs employees. They provide us an employee product that is very usable. I never have problems filling vacancies. I get to work with the best 45 guys I've ever worked with."
The company utilizes some of the latest in robotics technology to produce its products, and Truitt was impressed.
"I can't pick up an article on education without reading about automation and high tech and the skills gap, and I can see it here," Truitt said. "This is not your grandfather's factory. This is 21st century and beyond."
Truitt spoke very highly not only of what Mertek does on the factory floor, but of how it utilizes programs like the North Carolina Business Committee for Education's Students@Work and Teachers@Work initiatives, which encourages students and teachers to spend time in factories and other businesses to get an idea of what happens after graduation. She also complimented the work that Lee County as a whole has done for education and workforce integration, and sees it as where she wants the rest of the state to go in the near future in that regard.
"Lee County has innovated a lot," she said. "They are ahead of the game for sure. Not every school district has done that. As a nation, we have to rethink the way we educate kids because our system today largely looks the same as it did 120 years ago."
Pedley was buzzing with excitement when discussing the day and what all he and his company are doing with CCCC in Lee County.
"It was fun," he said. "The education that we have in Lee County is phenomenal. One of the lines I heard, to be the best we've got to get a little better every day. It's a good group. Our schools make a product that businesses can use."
Joining Truitt on the tour were Bob Joyce, the Sanford Area Growth Alliance's economic development executive director, Pamela Senegal, CCCC's vice president of economic and community development, and Andy Bryan, superintendent of Lee County Schools. Bryan shared how the school system and the community college have been working together to promote college-level learning for high school students and getting them involved in apprenticeship programs at local businesses. Senegal discussed the role that businesses like Mertek play in the community college preparing students for the demands of the workforce, giving equipment and machinery and allowing shadowing opportunities.
In presentations she makes, Truitt said, she shows a slide with a picture of a classroom and a factory in 1900. On the next slide, she shows 21st-century examples of those two places. She said that while the modern-day factory looks radically different, the classroom hasn't changed much.
The governor's office is working on a public relations campaign to grow these kind of relationships between schools and businesses like she saw at Mertek and to change the way classrooms look to adjust to the needs of the factory. For Truitt, a former educator, that's what's most important.
"It's so helpful for me to see who they need to come work here," she said. "What kind of kid does K-12 need to be graduating to end up in a place like this to continue to grow our economy?"
Zachary Horner, The Sanford Herald. Catherine Truitt (left), N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory's senior education advisor, and Mertek Solutions president Jerry Pedley inspect a fuel supply part made by a Mertek-designed and manufactured assembly system. Truitt visited the factory and Central Carolina Community College during a trip to Lee County.