Another era of success is closing at Lanier Technical College, but its future remains brighter than ever thanks to decades of ambitious leadership.
One of the key players in that effort, Russell Vandiver, announced last week he is retiring as the college’s president in March, ending a 37-year career with the Oakwood-based institution.
For Vandiver, it will be a transition from educating one group of eager young minds to another.
“I’m trying to teach my grandson the wonderful art of deer hunting and fly-fishing,” he said.
Vandiver, 59, spent the past two years as Lanier Tech president after serving previously as vice president of economic development. In that time, the school has grown into an important force in the local community, including the opening of the Lanier Technical College Forsyth Conference Center.
The Habersham County native earned degrees from the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Brenau University in Gainesville and the University of Georgia. His roles at Lanier Tech have included special needs coordinator and coordinator of industrial training.
Vandiver became interim president in February 2010 when Mike Moye accepted the president’s post at Central Georgia Technical College in Macon; he then became full-time president seven months later.
Under his guidance, Lanier Tech has continued to grow and prosper. What began as a small trade school now brags of five campuses and dozens of programs. Just last week, the college opened its new Dawson County campus.
The Dawsonville campus offers programs to teach welders, medical assistants, certified nursing assistants, business administration, cosmetology, automotive technology and electrical systems technology. It is expected to reach its capacity of about 300 students within the next three years.
Vandiver’s hand has been at the wheel through nearly all of the college’s expansion efforts. As vice president of economic development, he customized contract training for more than 2,500 businesses and industries. The college’s Center for Innovation for Manufacturing Excellence offers high-tech training and equipment for workers in local industries. He was also instrumental in the creation of Lanier Tech’s Manufacturing Development Center, a business incubator that opened in 2007 in Gainesville at the Featherbone Communiversity facility.
The college’s influence extends deep into the local business community. For instance, last year Lanier Tech joined with the Georgia Quick Start program to help train workers at the new King’s Hawaiian site in Oakwood so the bakery’s employees would be ready to hit the ground running when the plant opened in March.
“Lanier Tech has reached beyond Hall County,” said Tim Evans, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for economic development. “They and he (Vandiver) have been involved with projects all over the region.”
“You’ve got one of the finest technical colleges in our state,” said Ron Jackson, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, at the dedication ceremony for the Dawson campus.
Lanier Tech recently earned accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Many students are able to receive financial aid from the Lanier Tech Foundation to further their education in skills that are vital to the area’s workforce.
The school opened in 1975 as Lanier Area Vocational-Technical School, with about 200 students attending classes in two buildings. Today thousands of students attend the college’s five campuses in Hall, Forsyth, Dawson, Barrow and Jackson counties. It offers 38 academic programs with more planned, partners with 10 area school systems for dual enrollment and boasts of a 90 percent job placement rate for its graduates.
At a time when jobs are harder to come by, many four-year college graduates find themselves entering the adult world with a degree, thousands of dollars in student loan debt and no real prospects in the field of their choice. Many wind up taking jobs below their career expectations, some forced to move back home with their parents until their fortunes improve. Local restaurants and retail stores are full of workers with college degrees whose years of study find them waiting for a chance to ply their chosen profession.
In this harsh environment, a college like Lanier Tech is vital in providing real-world job skills for its students who may not be inclined to seek the standard four-year university degree. They come out of school ready to go to work in expanding industries that need bright, skilled employees in technical, medical and mechanical trades that offer good-paying, secure careers.
Recently, the college’s four presidents — Ken Breeden, Joe Hill, Moye and Vandiver — gathered to discuss the college’s growth and success. Each had their own impact on that legacy, none bigger than Vandiver’s.
Yet even with those accomplishments, Vandiver realizes that to move forward, Lanier Tech will need new forward-thinking leaders.
“We need some fresh, new blood at Lanier Tech,” he told The Times of Gainesville last week when announcing his retirement.
“We need direction that is not from a long-term person that’s been here. The full growth of the college is going to depend on somebody having a vision.”
The college is well-positioned to create that vision and keep moving forward. And that is in no small part thanks to the efforts of Vandiver and other leaders who have made Lanier Tech a vital cog in the state’s educational and economic systems.