Before late January’s town hall meeting, President Obama privately visited classrooms to find out how Lorain County is learning skills for the new economy. There, he discovered programs that align with his vision for the nation.

Anthony Whitmore is no different from many displaced workers in Lorain County. He’s 48 years old, a general contractor by trade and starting over with hopes of rerouting his skills into an emerging industry: wind energy.

Whitmore and 19 other classmates at Lorain County Community College (LCCC) are some of the 740 people participating in the Make Your Layoff Pay Off program to help the unemployed gain skills to re-enter the workforce and compete for innovative, new jobs in Lorain County. Whitmore hopes that eventually those jobs will include positions in green energy.

“I always had an interest in building new types of homes using different technologies, and I thought [the wind energy certificate] would be a perfect opportunity to incorporate the green energy ideas and concepts I had in mind and find new functional applications that can be used in home building,” Whitmore says.

He is excited about this class — and the stimulus dollars, $1.2 million filtered into the Layoff Pay Off program from the American Recovery Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

But Whitmore is not the only one who understands the importance of the wind energy classes and the Fab Lab, where some Lorain County Early College High School students design and build prototypes to learn hands-on geometry lessons. On January 8, President Obama announced his Main Street Tour stop in Lorain County, scheduled for Friday, January 22. His plans included visits to those very classrooms.

He came here because LCCC enjoys a reputation as one of the country’s top community colleges, doing things that others want to know about, says Marcia Ballinger, vice president of strategic and institutional development. Nationally, the school is on the radar as a trendsetter in providing innovative workforce development programs. Enrollment has increased by 111 percent since 2000.

Also, LCCC is the only U.S. community college with a fabrication lab, and the school offers the only degreed program in the state for alternative wind energy. “I think we really represent economic transformation,” Ballinger says.

This push to reinvent a Rust Belt community into a hub of entrepreneurialism and innovation has required the partnership of educational institutions, including LCCC, local government, the business community and workforce development initiatives. There are several examples of this successful collaboration: the Lorain County Growth Partnership, the LCCC Entrepreneurship Innovation Institute, the Great Lakes innovation and Development Enterprise.

“LCCC and our economic and workforce development partners in the community are making a difference by figuring out ways to creatively leverage resources and create programs that have staying power for the future,” says Ballinger.

And these programs directly align with two of Obama’s key initiatives: the American Graduation Initiative for education and job growth, and his push for green energy.

“Our school’s mission is in line with the president’s goals,” says Tina Salyer, marketing and communication coordinator for the Lorain County JVS. “Our focus is preparing students with the technical skills needed to directly enter the workforce and succeed in college. It’s necessary for many students to work their way through college using the skills they’ve learned here. Partnerships with LCCC and others help our high school students earn college credit. That’s what we live and breathe here. Everyone’s working toward the same goals as the president — creating a skilled workforce and putting people back to work.”

Salyer worked as a volunteer helping manage the onslaught of press on town hall meeting day. She estimates there were 600 or more media outlets in print, radio, television and online from Ohio, outside the state and all over the world. “The excitement was palpable,” describes Salyer, who was born and raised in Lorain County, the daughter of a retired U.S. Steel worker.

The town hall meeting was widely publicized, but Obama’s intimate visits to two LCCC classrooms before his public address were not. No news media other than the White House press corps were permitted in the classrooms, where students like Whitmore got to shake the president’s hand and show off how they’re working toward real change for Lorain County.

Growing Green Jobs
The LCCC campus was closed for security reasons the day of Obama’s town hall meeting, but two classes met to give Mr. President a behind-the-scenes look at innovation in Lorain County. At the wind turbine lab, located in the Nord Advanced Technologies Center, 20 students from the Make Your Layoff Pay Off program were engaging in projects that no other community college in Ohio offers.

The day Obama visited, they were creating and fabricating a short tower for wind turbines. “We had lots of arcs and sparks going, so that was exciting,” says Duncan Estep, coordinator for LCCC’s alternative energy program. Students were dismantling and cleaning a couple of wind turbines Estep collected last summer from a defunct wind farm in California. The class was also working on a project to help a public radio station in Akron figure a way to power lights on a billboard by using alternative energy.

“The president was particularly impressed with this project because it involved the design and application of an alternative energy paradigm,” Estep says.

The hands-on class will train students who are looking for a fresh start in a promising industry — students like Whitmore. Now that one of his four daughters is ready to attend college next year, he decided the time was right for him, too. He’ll earn the certificate after taking a year of alternative/wind energy courses, then proceed to earn his associate’s degree. Whitmore says he’s starting a research-and-development company called Green Ideas.

This take-initiative attitude is what Obama praised during his visit, and what inspires Scott Mahoney, 33, editor of the LCCC campus newspaper The Collegian. Mahoney said much of the townhall discussion included talking points he has heard before. “But there were some things he said I really appreciated,” Mahoney says, grateful for the opportunity to cover a landmark event as a student journalist. “He talked about how we have these programs available, but we have to take the initiative and take advantage of them. He gave examples of people working 12 hours and going to an eight-hour class.”

Salyer says these are the type of people who live in Lorain County — her family, neighbors, colleagues, friends. “We’re survivors in this community,” she says. “We are doing a lot of things right. We have great partnerships between education, government and business, and we try to keep business and industry here, and to attract new business. I think we’re a great model for the rest of the nation.”

Specifically, the wind energy program at LCCC is the only associate of applied science degree of its kind in Ohio. This foundation will come in handy, Estep says, when Ohio catches up to nearby states’ wind energy efforts. “And internationally, they just can’t find enough people who have the wherewithal to work on turbines, put them up and maintain them,” Estep says, noting that this program ties in Obama’s focus on job creation and goal to generate 20 percent of U.S. power by alternative energy by 2030.

“Locally, I’m hoping by the time my first graduating class comes through, the projects that are on the books [in this region] will start coming to fruition,” Estep says, pointing to a proposed project on Lake Erie that would be the first of its kind on a fresh-water lake; and other utility-scale projects proposed by the Ohio Power Siting Board. Nothing is set in stone yet.

Obama, impressed by the progressive course at LCCC, shook each student’s hand. His visit was warm, relaxed and one-on-one, Ballinger comments. “These private, intimate [classroom] tours into high-focus areas enabled him to talk directly with students and hear from them,” she says.

John Marr, a 36-year steel worker who’s now in the energy program, had been laid off for nine months when he decided to enroll in the wind energy program. “I didn’t really see a future anymore in the steel industry, and I needed to work,” he says. “The opportunity is here.”

The president’s visit was confirmation to students like Josh Labonte that their studies will pay off. “I joined this program because I wanted a job once I got a degree,” he says. “To meet the president lets me know I’m on the right track to doing something great. It’s not just a job anymore; I’ve got a purpose.”

Creating Tomorrow’s Workforce
Nearby on campus, 10th-grade students in Leigh Blankenship’s geometry class at Lorain Early College High School were designing and fabricating cereal boxes in LCCC’s Fab Lab. The facility is stocked with industrial tools and materials, including the digital design programs necessary to create prototypes of all kinds.

For Blankenship, the lab is a great way to show students how math is used in everyday life — a concept many students struggle with, explaining why math gets a bad rap as the least liked school subject, she points out. This see-it-do-it approach to math correlates with Obama’s STEM initiatives (science, technology, engineering and math). In fall 2009, the president launched a grass-roots effort called National Lab Day and a White House science fair.

Meanwhile, the Early College High School gave students access to the Fab Lab to get the type of hands-on learning Obama is encouraging on a national level. “We can talk about a cereal box — the volume, how to change it — but when they can get into the Fab Lab, very quickly they’re producing three-dimensional models,” Blankenship describes.

“Markers and crayons don’t cut it anymore,” she says, adding that instead the computer-assisted design software helps students create projects that are then produced, laser-cut and assembled in the lab. “Students are learning the technology that we have access to here at the lab.”

Obama’s visit was a real motivator for students, Blankenship says. Indeed, his stop in the classroom confirmed to some students the value in these projects and the lab as a resource. The students even blogged about meeting the president face-to-face. Most were nervous, but they didn’t show it.

“I held my composure, but inside my stomach was in knots … it was a remarkable experience,” writes Paula Jones, a 10th grader.

“How many people can say they shook the president’s hand?” Chelsea Engle says. “I felt overwhelmed but ready to show everyone what my classmates and I were capable of doing.”

“From this experience, I can take away so many things that will help me reach my goals and dreams in my lifetime,” Engle blogged. “This showed me that someone as big and famous as President Obama could notice people like me and Lorain County are important.”

One student asked the president for a high-five. (Obama happily complied.) He watched over students’ shoulders as they worked on computers, and he inquired about the cereal boxes they constructed — in particular, Diva-Trition, the creation of Tajah Davis and Chelsea Engle. “He called us divas because [of the cereal],” Davis wrote in her blog, thrilled about the compliment.

Capturing the Momentum
Obama’s visits were brief, but students left motivated to work hard in class, Blankenship says. “The message he kept sending to students is, ‘This is a real opportunity for you,’ ” she says. “The students really want to get through this program successfully, and they’re doing everything they can to do that.”

Meanwhile, Lorain County continues to leverage partnerships among business, schools, local government and its national exposure to “create programs that have staying power for the future,” Ballinger says.

The pride Obama’s visit instilled in students and community members also has staying power. Ballinger says after Obama visited the Fab Lab he commented: “Every community college in the United States needs to see this and create a lab on their campuses so students can engage in innovation.”

Lorain County serves as a role model for how to adapt and retrain a workforce to compete in a new economy, Ballinger affirms. “This was an opportunity to really model something that can make an impact in other communities,” she says of the Fab Lab, alternative energy program and various county initiatives from the Lorain County Growth Partnership to the Entrepreneurship Innovation Institute.

Salyer agrees the president’s visit is confirmation that all of these steps forward are paying off. “If you are willing to give and take and do what’s best for the community and the students, that can really make things work much better,” she says. “We’re all working toward a common goal.”