PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — Students of all ages are gearing up to head back into the classroom in Escambia County on Wednesday. At George Stone Technical College, students will have a hand on learning experience focused on getting them into the workforce as soon as they finish their time at the school.

History of GSTC

George Stone Technical College began as the George Stone Area Vocational-Technical Center and was built in four phases as set forth by the Florida State Board of Education. The Center was named for the late George Stone, a Florida legislator. He worked vigorously for education as a whole and especially for vocational education. He introduced and helped pass a bill in 1965 to allocate millions of dollars of state funds to build vocational centers throughout the state. GSTC is an outcome of that bill.

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

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

In August of 2012, an adult high school completion program was added to the GSTC campus, providing an opportunity for students to earn a high school diploma and a career pathways initiative.

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

In August of 2019, West Florida High School of Advanced Technology re-located to the former Woodham Middle School. In its place, Success Academy, an alternative program within the school district, took over 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.

“Back in the 60s, it was mainly those vocational type courses, but we still have a lot of staple type courses here,” Rollin said. “Things like electricity, HVAC and welding has been around a long time. We have 25 programs right now, and what we do is the courses are relatively short term. We use the phrase ‘Career in a year,’ that is actually used throughout Florida’s technical colleges, because most our programs are right around a year.”

Through hands-on learning and industry certifications, Rollins said the schools provides an opportunity for its students to go straight into the workforce.

“Are programs are certifications, not degree programs,” Rollins said. “But they are here, doing the work, whether it be skills related work or text learning, directly in their career field, every hour they are here. We prepare people to go to work and have the skills necessary to do what they want to do.”

Rollins said the state defines the jobs they teach as high skilled, high demand and high wage.

“Most of our programs fit into those categories,” Rollins said. “Some of them aren’t necessarily considered high wage, like some of our public service programs, such as law enforcement, EMS or firefighting. Those professions are still very much needed in the community, and they have outstanding participation. The ability to get people jobs in this area of work is still there. It is really good for the community.”

From ages 16, all the way to 72, Rollins said there is no age limit at GSTC.

“Most of our 16-year-olds are doing a dual enrollment program with their high schools,” Rollins said. “Sometimes you’ll get people that just want to come and learn some skills for their own enhancement. So, if they are here to learn some skills for themselves, that is fine. We serve the public. We get a lot of veterans that come out and have some funding they can use through their service. It is really exciting.”

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

“There are several at a lot of the different high schools and middle schools,” Rollins said. “The advantage of dual enrollment is that they get the post-secondary credits. There are a lot of different reasons why these students want to dual enroll. Some will want to get the jump on the workforce training, some of them want to use the credits to go on to a university.”

When students get into 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 career 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 at our school, you have to have at least six years of in job, in the field experience. The district has an excellent plan for acclimating people in the business community to our school.”  

New programs, improvements to GSTC

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

“We are really excited about that,” Rollins said. “We are just in the setup phase right now, but they will be starting off tomorrow when school starts.”

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

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

Lack of workforce, increase in students

Though there is a coming shortage of blue-collar workers due to Baby Boomers retiring across the nation, Rollins said their enrollment has been steadily increasing since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our numbers have remained pretty steady, and this past year was fantastic,” Rollins said. “We were doing great the year of 2019-2020, then of course, the pandemic shut things down that spring. We were very fortunate that our superintendent led the way to get us going back again quickly. That next year was pretty difficult enrollment wise, but last year was a great year. This year looks like it’s going to start even better. So, we are looking to get back to where we started before COVID.”

Rollins said there is just not enough people going into the workforce than there are retiring, causing a top-heavy 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 try to tell high schoolers is that you out coming out of high school need to look at this as a great time of opportunity, because a lot of the employers around here are looking for great employees.  If they can get some job skills and an industry level certification, man, they have a huge opportunity. It’s a great time to be a student and I think they are realizing that because the numbers are bouncing back right now.”

Filling the community with quality workers

Rollins said there are several students that go back into the community to work after earning their certificate, but he also said several of them go on their own way.

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

Why students decided on GSTC

For Booker T. Washington High School alumnus Jeremy David, taking airplane mechanics at GSTC was a logical decision.

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

With school starting tomorrow, David said he is looking forward to more time in the shop.

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

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

This year, he said he is looking forward to learning all that he can.

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

The first day of school for Escambia County Public schools begins tomorrow, Aug. 10.

“We are extremely excited for our first day of school,” Rollins said. “Our pre-enrollment numbers look really, really strong. Our teachers have prepared 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 is seat availability in the desired class, the student may begin classes on the first Monday of most months.

George Stone Technical College is open to anyone 16 years of age or older. Exceptional students are placed into 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 administered the Test of Adult Basic Education. When necessary, students are assigned to Applied Academics for Adult Education (AAAE) or Adult Basic Education for instruction in reading, mathematics, and language skills.