SPRINGDALE -- Northwest Technical Institute is expanding its campus and instructional programs.
The school has about 714 students enrolled, according to Melissa Greenslade, student services director.
"That enrollment is growing daily," Jim Rollins, school president, said last week.
The technical school offers training in nine diploma programs, including ammonia refrigeration maintenance, automotive service, practical nursing and welding. The school also features certificate programs for heating, ventilation and air conditioning, certified nursing and phlebotomy.
"This is hands-on experience where students are introduced to their chosen career paths and develop skills that will transfer immediately to business and help our businesses be more productive," Rollins said.
The school is putting the finishing touches on a new welding building anticipated to be fully open for instruction this week, he said.
"We're beginning to move equipment into the building," Rollins said.
The 13,000-square-foot building is in the center of the 38-acre campus, said Mark Mansell, welding instructor and program chairman.
A $3 million gift from the estate of Ella Frances Byrd of Springdale as part of the Jackson G. Byrd Bypass Trust paid for the full cost of the building, Greenslade said.
About $800,000 in new equipment will be installed in the building, $600,000 of which came from the Arkansas Office of Skills Development, Rollins said. The office is a division within the Department of Commerce that aligns career and technical education programs with the skills needed by business and industry, according to the department website.
Industry partners such as Black Hills Energy and Cram-A-Lot assisted with the remaining equipment costs, Greenslade said.
"Our whole school is built on partnerships," Rollins said.
Construction began about one year ago by Fayetteville-based Legacy Construction Management, he said.
Enrollment in the welding program is at capacity with 39 students, Greenslade said. Rollins said the new building will allow the program to expand to as many as 80 students annually.
The former building was about 6,000 square feet and primarily consisted of a lab and one classroom, Rollins said. The new building includes a lab with 30 stations, two classrooms and a small group instruction area.
Mansell said students will work with the most modern welding equipment on the market and will be introduced to robotic welding and augmented reality virtual welding machines.
The augmented reality experience will allow students to explore welding as a potential career as early as junior high school without actually donning equipment, getting dirty or being exposed to sparks, he said.
"By the spring, we should have all that in place and be able to implement it," Mansell said. "That will also allow us to do a lot of industrial-type training that we plan on growing and expanding on."
Learning in the expanded space will be much easier, said Ryan Cook, 19, of Fayetteville.
"Here we can do a whole lot of other things -- welding, plasma cutting, even a little bit of torch cutting," he said.
Students previously would often take projects outside to have the necessary space to work, Cook said.
"We won't have to do that as much here," he said.
Cook said he began the welding program last school year while attending Farmington High School and anticipates graduating from the program in May.
Mitch Lewis, welding instructor, said it will be easier to teach in the new building as well, especially during the covid-19 pandemic.
"It was quite a bit smaller over there in the other space and required quite a bit more inventive ideas of being able to deal with students individually," he said. "That has definitely put a kink in our normal operations, but we are dealing with that and making leaps and strides as far as education. We're definitely not going to let that hold us back."
The former welding building may be the home of a future apprenticeship program, Rollins said. "We're currently looking at construction," he said. The institute at one time offered a construction apprenticeship program.
"We just think now's really a great time to bring it back," Rollins said. "I don't know yet if Jan. 1 is too aggressive, but that is our talking goal at this point. We'll see if we can put legs under it between now or then."
A new 19,800-square-foot ammonia refrigeration building is also being built in the center of campus, Rollins said.
Sixteen students are enrolled in the program, Greenslade said.
"The ammonia building is more for short-term training, so the number of full-time diploma students will not have a major increase," she said. "We would expect to reach into the hundreds each semester."
Short-term training primarily will be for people who're already working in the industry and are working to gain additional certification, Greenslade said.
The average beginning salary for graduates varies by program, Greenslade said, noting certified welders' starting salary is about $32,000 annually and ammonia and industrial maintenance workers can start at about $36,000 annually.
The average tuition is $6,728 annually for all school programs, Greenslade said. Tuition is $6,880 for the welding program and $5,925 for the ammonia refrigeration program, she said.
Work on the shell of the ammonia building began about six months ago and is anticipated to be completed by the end of the year, Rollins said.
The institute received $1 million from the state's rainy-day funds and $1 million from Tyson Foods to pay for the building's construction and equipment installation, Rollins said.
The school has an inventory of about $10 million in equipment that will be installed in the building, he said.
"I honestly believe that when this facility is completed and the installation of equipment is in place, we'll be a service provider for the entire nation," Rollins said.