PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — Students of all ages are preparing to return to the classroom in Escambia County on Wednesday. At George Stone Technical Collegestudents will have a learning experience focused on getting them into the workforce as soon as they finish their time in school.

History of GSTC

George Stone Technical College began as the George Stone Career-Technical Center and was built in four phases as outlined by the Florida State Board of Education. The center is named for the late George Stone, a Florida legislator. He works vigorously for education in general and vocational education in particular. He introduced and helped pass a bill in 1965 to provide millions of dollars in state funds to build vocational centers throughout the state. GSTC is an outcome of this Bill.

Ground was broken on November 10, 1976 for new facilities to house administrative offices, student personnel offices, a learning resource center, new programs and some existing programs. Equipment and personnel were moved to the new facility in January 1978. The cost of the new facility was $4,210,661.

West Florida High School for Advanced Technology joined the George Stone campus in August 2001. The final phase of the George Stone Technical Center/West Florida High School for Advanced Technology consisted of a gymnasium, cafeteria, additional classrooms and athletic fields, for to accommodate the higher technical enrollment of the school. The most recent addition was the creation of the Criminal Justice Building, which was completed in August 2005.

In August 2012, an adult high school graduation program was added to the GSTC campus, providing students with the opportunity to earn a high school diploma and a career development initiative.

On June 19, 2018, the Escambia County School Board unanimously approved the adoption of George Stone Technical College as the new name for the former George Stone Vocational Technical Center.

In August 2019, West Florida High School of Advanced Technology moved into the former Woodham Middle School. In its place, Success Academy, an alternative program within the school district, took on a much smaller footprint, freeing up additional space for the college.

The mission behind GSTC

According to GSTC Principal Thomas Rollin, the college has 25 career and technical education programs.

“In the 1960s it was basically these professional-type courses, but we still have a lot of basic courses here,” Rollins said. “Things like electricity, HVAC and welding have been around for a long time. We currently have 25 programs and what we do is that the courses are relatively short-term. We use the phrase ‘Career in a Year,’ which is actually used in Florida technical colleges, because most of our programs are about a year.”

Through hands-on training and industry certifications, Rollins said the schools provide an opportunity for their students to go straight into the workforce.

“The programs are certificates, not degree programs,” Rollins said. “But they’re here doing the work, whether it’s skills-related work or text learning, directly in their career field, every hour they’re here. We prepare people to go to work and have the skills they need to do what they want.”

Rollins said the state defines the occupations they teach as high-skill, high-demand and high-paying.

“Most of our programs fit into those categories,” Rollins said. “Some of them aren’t necessarily considered high-wage, like some of our community service programs, like law enforcement, EMS or firefighting. These professions are still very much needed in the community and are extremely involved. The ability to find employment for people in this line of work is still there. It’s really good for the community.”

From age 16 to age 72, Rollins said there is no age limit at GSTC.

“Most of our 16-year-old students are doing a dual enrollment program at their high schools,” Rollins said. “Sometimes you’ll have people who just want to come and learn some skills for their own betterment. So if they are here to learn some skills for themselves, that’s fine. We serve society. We have a lot of veterans who come out and have some funding that they can use through their services. It’s really exciting.”

Rollins said the school district is good with several dual enrollment opportunities at all of their high schools.

“There are several in many of the different high schools and middle schools,” Rollins said. “The advantage of dual enrollment is that they get the credits after high school. There are many different reasons why these students want to dual enroll. Some will want to move on to workforce training, some of them want to use the credits to go on to university.

When students enter the classroom or lab, Rollins said they are instructed by qualified experts who have spent time in their industry.

“Most of our teachers are not professional teachers,” Rollins said. “They spend many, many years in the industry. Most of them just want to come and give back to the students. To be a teacher in our school, you must have at least six years of work experience in the field. The district has an excellent plan to acclimate people from the business community to our school.”

New programs, improvements in GSTC

This year, the college partnered with Pensacola High School to provide a welding program to its students.

“We’re really excited about it,” Rollins said. “We’re in the setup phase right now, but they’ll start tomorrow when school starts.”

Rollins said they are also in the process of expanding their EMS program.

“We’re not really sure which program we’re going to add next,” Rollins said. “We don’t know if we’re going to do a paramedic program or an EKG.” We now have an EMT program and an independent firefighter program. They are doing really well.”

Labor shortage, increase in students

Although there is a looming staff shortage due to the retirement of baby boomers across the country, Rollins said enrollment has steadily increased since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our numbers have stayed pretty steady and this past year was fantastic,” Rollins said. “We were doing great in 2019-2020, then of course the pandemic shut things down this spring. We were very lucky that our warden led us to get us back quickly. The following year was quite difficult to record, but last year was a great year. This year looks set to get off to an even better start. So we’re looking to get back to where we started before COVID.”

Rollins said there simply aren’t enough people entering the workforce than retiring, leading to a dire situation.

“I think the community is well aware of the fact that a lot of these baby boomers are retiring from this type of work,” Rollins said. “What we’re trying to say to high school students is that you coming out of high school should look at this as a great opportunity because a lot of the employers here are looking for great employees. If they can get some professional skills and industry level certification, man, they have a huge opportunity. It’s a great time to be a student, and I think they realize that because the numbers are rebounding right now.”

Filling the community with quality workers

Rollins said there are several students who return to the community to work after earning their certification, but he also said some continue on their own path.

“It really varies from student to student,” Rollins said. “Typically, with law enforcement and corrections, a lot of them are sponsored students to begin with. So, they go to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, the Pensacola Police Department, or several other local agencies. It’s the same with firefighters. It depends on the student specifically, for example in our aviation mechanics program we have some good jobs in aviation that they could work for and some do go that route, but some of them choose to take that leap and maybe go to Dallas and work for American Airlines or go to Atlanta and work for Delta. What we’re telling them is that anywhere an American plane flies, you can get a job working on those planes. You can go anywhere you want. We had welders going and working on the pipeline in Alaska, and we had welders working right here. That’s why we really emphasize industry certification, because with that you can work anywhere.”

Why students have chosen GSTC

For Booker T. Washington High School graduate Jeremy David, taking an aircraft mechanic at GSTC was a logical decision.

“I took an aviation class in high school and fell in love with it,” David said. “I was going to go into the Air Force, but I decided not to go into the military and stick to aviation.”

With school starting tomorrow, David said he’s looking forward to more time at the shop.

For John Williams, 44, GSTC is a way to further his career.

“I’ve been in aviation for a while and they started a program for it in 2014, but I wasn’t able to participate,” Williams said. “I had the opportunity to do it this year, so I jumped in.”

This year, he said he’s looking forward to learning all he can.

“I think this aviation program gives you the opportunity to open your mind and learn from different aspects of the business,” Williams said. “I will be able to learn more about my career and be able to use it.”

The first day of school for Escambia County Public Schools begins tomorrow, August 10th.

“We are extremely excited for our first day of school,” Rollins said. “Our pre-registration numbers look really, really strong. Our teachers have been preparing together for the last six days and there is a lot of optimism among them. It’s all exciting.”

GSTC has an open enrollment policy. Provided there are spaces available in the desired class, the student may begin classes on the first Monday of most months.

George Stone Technical College is open to anyone over the age of 16. Exceptional students are placed in appropriate technical programs in accordance with established state board rules and established district policies and procedures.

Programs are available for full-time or part-time students. Students are given a basic education test for adults. When needed, students are assigned to Applied Academies for Adult Education (AAAE) or Adult Basic Education for instruction in reading, math, and language skills.

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