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KTECH Expands Workforce Training Initiative in Partnership with Toyota Plant

It was a matter of seeing is believing for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama.

After company representatives toured the classrooms and labs at Huntsville’s KTECH, the two forged a partnership for KTECH to provide workforce training support and advanced technology capabilities to the Huntsville engine plant’s growing  team.

Launched in 2016, KTECH is a workforce development program created by founder Lee Marshall for her Kids to Love Foundation, targeting young adults who have aged out of the foster care system.

The program also reaches out to anyone in the community, such as veterans, who can use the skills. It focuses on providing certified skills training that will leverage them into good-paying career jobs and, since then, has proven to be a successful workforce training model.

According to Marshall, officials with the engine plant approached in February with a request for customized training. In August, KTECH trained the first Toyota team members.

“Innovation is a key component to the advanced manufacturing industry,” said Marshall. “The ability to train for that industry has been part of KTECH’s strategic plan from the beginning.

“Adding this component positions KTECH to expand our student base beyond those pursuing education alone, and includes students who have careers, but want to hone their expertise.”

Joe Steder, the plant’s maintenance and facilities manager, said after touring the KTECH facility, company leaders saw first-hand the superior caliber of students enrolled and identified KTECH as an opportunity to further support their training needs.

“KTECH developed customized courses that our skilled maintenance technicians can take locally, which provides tremendous benefits to our team,” said Steder.

“The objective of the class is to introduce, familiarize, and build skillsets for using cobot and vision tools,” said Keith Laney, Skilled Maintenance Group leader.  “The top down training approach reflects how technicians actually perform on the job, making it very effective.”

KTECH Workforce Development Director  Dorothy Havens said the organization hones in on the skills companies are seeking.

“Our biggest challenge is filling the number of advanced manufacturing jobs in our community, and connecting with the current workforce so our students have instant industry access. It is a win for everyone,” said Havens.

To date, KTECH has awarded 134 certifications and found graduates jobs at more than 20 local companies.

Regions Grant Gives KTECH’s Virtual Reality Workforce Initiative Real-Life Implications

Virtual reality goes real-time at KTECH thanks to a $42,000 grant from the Regions Foundation, the nonprofit initiative of Regions Bank. The money will fund virtual reality equipment for KTECH’s new Virtual Reality Workforce Development Training initiative.

Founder and CEO Lee Marshall formed KTECH as the workforce training and development arm of her Kids to Love Foundation. Because workforce readiness is a top priority for Regions Bank, its initiatives naturally align with KTECH.

“It has never been more important to connect with people wherever they are,” said Marta Self, executive director of the Regions Foundation. “That’s exactly what VR does, and what KTECH is doing. This is about empowering students with new tools to help them prepare for successful and rewarding careers.”

The grant is an extension of Region’s work to prepare people in Huntsville and Madison County for advanced manufacturing and high-tech jobs.

KTECH introduced the use of virtual reality technology this summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as a 3D Virtual Tour recruitment tool. Students were able to explore KTECH’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) facilities while living under stay-at-home orders.

It introduced a new way of seeing what KTECH is about and gave virtual viewers an up-close look at instructors demonstrating how the equipment works. It also shows the instructors conducting KTECH training, so it puts the student right there in the workplace and classroom.

KTECH has been on the edge of innovation. It targets foster kids who have aged out of the foster care system, and also is a training vehicle for anyone in the community who can use the skills, including veterans.

They offer hands-on, interactive, one-on-one instruction and certification training in mechatronics, robotics, soldering and solid edge modeling. All four skills are in high demand in the advanced manufacturing industry.

After students receive their certification, KTECH connects its graduates with good-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector.

Now VR is incorporated into the Mechatronics classes, further enhancing the student’s classroom experience in preparation for future careers.

VR technology creates a 3D simulated environment that prepares students for a range of vocational and tech-based careers. Students can both learn a STEAM skill and experience the job environment in which they will find themselves upon completion. It supplements in-person training with remote learning from anywhere.

“Students use VR headsets to experience face-to-face interactions with realistic avatars for a more immersive experience in learning than workers have ever been able to do before,” said Marshall. “During COVID-19, we knew we had to pivot to propel our students forward, and Virtual Reality was the obvious choice.

“Cutting-edge virtual reality technology is used throughout KTECH and helps students pursue self-guided discovery in areas such as mechatronics, hands-on skills development, and more.”

According to several career-oriented websites, VR is ranked in the top five fastest growing technology careers, alongside cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.

“We are thankful the Regions Foundation sees how this Virtual Reality technology will advance our KTECH students,” said Marshall. “Putting state-of-the-art technology into the palm of a student’s hand, no matter where they are, is critical to the learning and workforce training process. Adapting and expanding digital offerings allows KTECH to grow in a ‘post-COVID’ world, preparing the workforce of the future.”

Sean Kelly, Huntsville market executive for Regions Bank. said, as the local economy recovers from COVID-19, more companies will discover the positive workforce climate available in Huntsville.

“KTECH and the Virtual Reality program will serve as important components to the success of the Tennessee Valley,” said Kelly. “We all benefit – individuals, businesses and communities – when we ensure the workforce is trained, prepared and ready to succeed.”

 

KTECH Helps Stem Rise of Juvenile Criminals; Opens Gateway to Jobs for Foster Kids

In 2003, while investigating a news story about a man on Death Row, then-television news anchor Lee Marshall discovered the man was a product of Alabama’s foster care system.

Marshall, who was herself adopted as an infant, hit on an alarming statistic from Pew Research: Between 75 and 80 percent of kids in the juvenile justice system come out of foster care.

Lee Marshall: “KTECH is a gateway, an opportunity for kids aging out of the system, to take another path.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

Having grown up in a loving family and having the benefit of a good education and a successful career, she was appalled at that statistic.

More than 16 years later, recent statistics from Foster Care 2.0, and confirmed in stats quoted in an article written for Teen Vogue in May 2018, that number is now solid at 80 percent.

Furthermore, by age 17, more than half of the youths in foster care have experienced an arrest, conviction, or overnight stay in a correctional facility. More alarming numbers:

  • 90 percent of youths with more than five foster placements will enter the justice system at some point in their lives;
  • 40 to 50 percent of formerly fostered youth become homeless within 18 months after leaving foster care; and
  • 25 percent will be in prison within two years of aging out of the system.

“I saw this happening, like a flood rushing the prison gates and pouring through it,” said Marshall. “I searched for somebody, somewhere, doing something to stop it, but came up empty.”

Shortly thereafter, Lee Marshall retired from television news after 20 years to start her Kids To Love foundation. Kids To Love seeks to wrap their arms around foster kids no matter what age or under what circumstances they enter the foster care system. They provide supportive programs, all with a hidden curriculum: to give them food if they don’t have it; to provide transportation if they need it; and help them find housing if they are on the streets. But no one was offering solutions to just “Stop it.”

“As a former journalist, I know what I don’t know, so I did some research,” Marshall said. “I needed an exit strategy for these kids, especially those aging out of the system.

“I created our KTECH workforce training initiative to stop it by getting them into jobs. Our overall catalyst is to invest in, educate, and sustain these kids. KTECH is a gateway, an opportunity for kids aging out of the system, to take another path.”

Daily KTECH classes feature mechatronics in the mornings and robotics in the afternoon. (Photo/Steve Babin)

In 2014, a Kids To Love board member connected Marshall with Fred Rascoe, dean of Career and Technical Programs at Motlow State Community College. He runs the career readiness department which includes Bridgestone classes in mechatronics, a multidisciplinary form of electrical and mechanical engineering systems that trains people for the newest jobs in advanced manufacturing. Mechatronics rethinks traditional blue-collar manufacturing into a clean, skilled environment.

“Several community leaders and members of the Board of Directors went with me to see how their program worked,” said Marshall. “They were stating 100 percent job placement for graduates from the classes and, by all accounts, it looked good.”

Rascoe became her mentor and when she told him how she wanted KTECH to look, he showed her what they needed and how to set up the equipment to be successful.

“I had a vision of what I needed to make it work but I knew the mountain I would be climbing. All I needed now was a building and half a million dollars in equipment,” Marshall said.

Kids To Love was operating out of several locations with a warehouse in one place, her administrative offices in an old Intergraph building, and to make the classes work, she was praying for a way to bring everything under one roof.

Just a few months later, in November 2014, she met Louis and Patty Breland of Breland Properties. Patty was adopted and she shared Marshall’s vision for KTECH.

The Brelands donated a 13,000 square-foot investment property on Castle Drive in Madison to Kids To Love.

“It was formerly a Jump Zone painted in primary colors and smelled like dirty socks, but I have never been so excited about a building in my life,” said Marshall. “Nearly all the materials for renovations were donated and in April, Dorothy Davidson of Davidson Technologies bought all the required equipment.”

KTECH has two fulltime instructors and classes are daily with mechatronics in the mornings; robotics in the afternoon; and soldering and solid edge, a 3D CAD technology that provides solid modeling, assembly modelling and 2D orthographic view functionality for mechanical designers, taught several hours per week. Students leave KTECH with all four industry certifications.

Students attend an accelerated program of four college-level classes in 16 weeks. Classes are 40 percent lecture and 60 percent hands-on instruction.

KTECH has an articulation agreement, that is, their college level classes qualify as transferable college credits if a student wants to transfer to Calhoun Community College, Wallace State, or Motlow. Calhoun and Wallace State give 12 of the 16 hours credit, but Motlow gives the full 16 because the program is patterned after it.

“We want kids to have an easy transition into a job after we certify them, so we set up the labs just like they will be at a job, in fact, the robotic lab is exactly like the new labs at the new Mazda Toyota plant,” Marshall said. “Students can go straight to work making $30,000 a year.”

In 2018, KTECH expanded the mechatronics lab to include the largest robotics training classroom in the state of Alabama. There are four robots and a virtual computer robot just like the ones they will see at the Mazda Toyota plant.

KTECH runs completely debt free and accepts no state or federal funding because grant money has strings attached.

“I can’t help kids the way I want to help them if I accepted government funds,” she said.

While KTECH’s priority is on kids aging out of the foster care system, it is not limited to that. Marshall said it is a training vehicle for anyone in the community who can use the skills.

“We have put veterans in there who are transitioning back into the workforce and they bring a tremendous synergy to the kids,” said Marshall. “My kids have a tendency to quit when it gets hard or to quit when they don’t want to do something.

“If I put a vet in here with one of my kids, that vet comes from a brotherhood. They will say, ‘I’ve got your back. We’re in this together and quitting or failure are not options.’”

The program also offers classes to the underserved or under-resourced people.

“We have great relationships with nonprofit organizations like the Downtown Rescue Mission and Christian Women’s Job Corps,” Marshall said. “We have trained six of the Downtown Rescue Mission’s program graduates.”

Students must have a high school diploma or GED to interview and Marshall said it is a tough love proposition.

“We have a strict interview process and only take about half of those that interview; however, we have a 100 percent completion rate,” said Marshall. “We give them an opportunity. What they do with it is up to them.

“For us, it is not about having butts in a seat – it is about completion. We kick them in the butt while they are here, but we are by their side at graduation.”

Kids To Love has awarded more than 700 college scholarships in its first 16 years, and KTECH has awarded more than 100 certifications in the first three years of its existence. KTECH is an alternative for foster children who are not cut out for college or don’t have the support to go to college, but they still need a skill set to be independent.

For 16 years, Kids To Love has implemented numerous programs in support of foster children of all ages throughout Alabama, in 60 counties in Tennessee, and with a growing presence in Mississippi and Georgia. Programs for young children like More Than a Backpack and Christmas For the Kids provide food, school supplies, and new clothing to wear. Life Lab teaches older kids, essential skills like how to create a budget, balance a budget, write a resume and dress appropriately for a job.

“I asked a judge in Montgomery, ‘What is the number one thing you see in my kids when they come before you?” said Marshall.

“He said, ‘Armed robbery with drugs a close number two. It may surprise you, drugs isn’t number one, but they get a gun because they need a gun to get into the drug business,’” Marshall said he told her.

According to Bennet Wright, Chair and Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, it costs $44 a day to house an inmate in Alabama. Armed robbery is a gateway crime with an automatic 20-year sentence if convicted in Alabama. A 20-year sentence costs the taxpayer over $321,000.

Right now, there are more than 1,500 kids over the age of 14, about to age out of the system. The cost of that many kids aging out of foster care and going into the juvenile justice system will cost taxpayers about $365 million if nothing is done to stop it.

KTECH is one step to help stop this trend.

KTECH Implements 3D Virtual Tours as New Recruitment Tool

When her Kids To Love foundation was deemed an essential business during the coronavirus shutdowns due to its support for foster children across North Alabama and Southern Tennessee, founder and CEO Lee Marshall used the opportunity to accelerate an innovative 3D Virtual Tour recruitment tool she already had in the works for her KTECH students, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

KTECH offers hands-on, interactive, one-on-one instruction and certification in a variety of technical skill sets in high demand in the advanced manufacturing industry, to foster kids who have aged out of the foster care system and do not have the grades or money to attend college. KTECH also connects its graduates with good paying jobs in the manufacturing arena.

The classes include instruction in mechatronics, robotics, soldering and solid edge, which is a 3D CAD technology that provides solid modeling, assembly modelling and 2D orthographic view functionality for mechanical designers.

“Foster kids are inherently resilient due to their life circumstances,” said Marshall. “They adapt better than most people to unexpected circumstances, so they instinctively turned to online learning during the shelter at home order.

“Innovation has been a tenet of KTECH since its inception, and we are always looking for new ways to attract students, especially foster kids, to the KTECH workforce training initiative.”

She said COVID-19 restrictions affected KTECH’s recruitment efforts, so her team pushed forward and launched their way of encouraging students to consider KTECH training. Rather than going in person to tour the KTECH campus on Castle Drive off U.S. 72 in Madison, students can access the 3D Virtual Tour on the KTECH website at GoKTECH.org.

“It is a new way of seeing what KTECH is about,” said Marshall. “It gives virtual viewers an up-close look at instructors demonstrating how the equipment works and shows the instructors conducting the KTECH training.

“KTECH works with world-class industry partners,” said Marshall. “Our training is second to none, and our students leave KTECH ready to work. The 3D tour is an exciting way to show potential students, as well as industry partners, that we are here to serve them and put them on a successful career track.”

 

Entrepreneur Awards Cap Innovate Huntsville Week

Every March, Innovate Huntsville Week is a weeklong, jam-packed event filled with networking, support, collaboration, and the celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit that’s alive and well in the area.

Innovate Huntsville connects entrepreneurs and innovators with local resources to build solid networks and opportunities around Huntsville’s small business economy.

Innovate Huntsville 2019 kicked off with Ignite, the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber-sponsored mixer, providing an opportunity for participants to get acquainted. The week continued with the HudsonAlpha Tech Challenge, Engineer-to-Entrepreneur Tech Roadshow, Small Business Microloan Clinic, Entrepreneur’s Roundtable, the Angels of North Alabama Investment Forum, Urban Engine’s Co-Working Night, a Boost Pitch Competition and R.I.S.E. networking.

Capping off the celebration was the fourth annual Entrepreneur Awards luncheon, presented by the Catalyst Center for Business & Entrepreneurship, at the Campus 805 Stone Event Center.

This year’s winners are:

ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Lee Marshall, founder/CEO of Kids to Love. Awarded to the entrepreneur who has been in business for more than three years and has a proven track record for sustainability, strategic direction, future growth and community involvement.

“There’s an incredible pool of talent in Huntsville,” she said. “And I’m honored to be selected among so many great people doing amazing things in our city!”

CREATIVE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Rachel Lackey, owner and founder of Green Pea Press. Awarded to a non-technical entrepreneur whose focus is in
the retail, arts, entertainment, or culinary industry and has a proven track record for sustainability.

“I am excited and honored,” Lackey said. “Winning this award feels like a validation of all the hard work that I’ve put in and all the challenges I’ve faced up to this point.

“I appreciate the Catalyst including the creative sector among their honorees; so often we get overlooked in favor of tech entrepreneurism, but I think it’s important to recognize that creatives are the ones on the ground, so to speak, engaging and changing the culture of our community.”

VETERAN ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – LaBerrick Williams, owner of Jell’s 4 Ever BBQ. Awarded to an outstanding military-veteran entrepreneur in the North Alabama region.

“My ‘why’ stems from my late grandparents, Jell and Ever Scruggs, hence, my restaurant’s name – Jell’s 4 Ever BBQ – to carry on their legacy,” Williams said. “Their selfless service and delicious food brought the community together for years. Our intertwined logo J4E is a symbol of their union of 75 years and stands for family, love, togetherness and happiness. This is our ideology for the world.”

EMERGING ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Dr. Morgan L. Goss, Dove Family Health. Awarded to the entrepreneur who has been in business for one to three years and has a proven track record for sustainability with room for growth.

“I do what I do because there is an insatiable desire to see my own people thrive in health,” Goss said. “I desire for my own people have access to affordable, accessible and compassionate health care experiences.”

FEMALE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Edwina Musante, founder/CEO/president, Cortina Solutions. Awarded to an outstanding female entrepreneur in the North
Alabama Region. The winner of this award will be submitted to the Small Business Administration’s Small Business of the Year Award National Award by the Women’s Business Center.

Their mission is to serve God by serving the country, customers, coworkers, and community with excellence and integrity.

YOUTH ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Joshua Wortham, general manager of Peaceful Pastries & Sweets. Awarded to a school-age entrepreneur, in K-12, who has
started their entrepreneurial journey and business at a young age and is working toward their dream.
“I am a 14-year-old chef who enjoys baking people happy,” Wortham said. “As my bakery continues to grow, I’m even more convinced that entrepreneurs should continue to learn new skills, but also stretch their minds and hearts through collaboration and immersion in the community.”

ENTREPRENEUR CHAMPION OF THE YEAR – Joe Newberry, president/CEO of Redstone Federal Credit Union. Awarded to an individual who has a proven track record of championing for the entrepreneurial journey. This can be through volunteering, mentoring, investing, or collaborating.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Mel Bowers, Mel B Enterprises. This award was determined by social media and overall community popularity.

“Being an entrepreneur has been a great adventure for me,” Bowers said. “Knowing that I set my own pace, create my own path, and that my future is extraordinary. I won’t make excuses, and never will I shun my hard days, they are what made me who I am.  There are no limits to what I can achieve.”