The Workforce Innovation Lab was unveiled during a ribbon-cutting with the Douglas County Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 23. The project was funded by a $42,000 Google Data Center Community Grant, and the new resource is already generating buzz within the University and surrounding area, said Myron Randall, student success coordinator for the Douglas center.
Two classrooms in the building were converted into a high-tech, professional work space that can be used by Mercer, community organizations and businesses for meetings and trainings, as well as by students for studying or relaxing.
“The Workforce Innovation Lab at Mercer University’s Douglas County campus is a place where local businesses, Mercer University, and workforce development organizations can come together to explore new ideas, collaborate and innovate,” said Dr. Penny Elkins, Mercer’s senior vice president for Enrollment Management. “As always, Mercer is committed to empowering the communities we serve by providing access to high-quality educational programs and resources that can help individuals to achieve their career aspirations. This new Workforce Innovation Lab represents a significant step in fulfilling that commitment.”
The idea for the project came in 2019 when Douglas center leaders were brainstorming how to refresh the nearly 30-year-old campus while also addressing the needs of the community. Dr. Justin Brown, former coordinator for the center, led the application efforts for the Google grant that would provide funding to bring that vision to life.
The Google Data Center Community Grants Program supports organizations and initiatives that directly affect the immediate community surrounding a Google Data Center. Douglas County’s Google Data Center and Mercer’s Regional Academic Center are located within 3 miles of one another in Lithia Springs.
“This is a testament to what Mercer can do when we collaborate with our communities,” said Jamie Brown, interim director of Mercer’s Regional Academic Centers operations. “We have very strong connections with the chambers of commerce in the areas in which we have campuses. We want to stick to the strategic operations plan and initiatives but also (stay) true to our heritage about making sure that we make a difference in the communities in which we serve.”
To the west of Atlanta, including Douglas County, is a growing area that’s attracting major organizations and industries, she said. Several Fortune 500 companies can be found along the Thornton Road corridor, where the Douglas Center is also located, and they indicated during conversations with Mercer that they needed a venue outside their own facilities to train staff, Randall said. So, Mercer set out to become their go-to place.
“I want all of these companies that are in our general vicinity to use (the Workforce Innovation Lab), to bring their employees in,” Randall said. “I want to see that space lifting up people and retraining people and upscaling people. Having those companies in the building means those employees are in our building, and those employees are our students. It helps lift up the name of Mercer.”
Area employers want to elevate and incentivize their workers through opportunities for degrees and recertifications, and they want to partner with Mercer on those initiatives, Brown said. The University can build degree programs and tailor them to ensure they meet a company’s needs for the highest quality skills and education.
“We have a program called the Enterprise Learning Partnership where organizations partner with us to get degrees to their employees, which helps with employee retention and then helps us as an institution because we get more students from those companies,” Randall said.
The Workforce Innovation Lab is sleek, modern, versatile and decorated in Mercer’s signature colors. Lightweight and mobile furniture allows the room to be rearranged easily to any configuration, from large sessions to small group work. Presentations and resources can be screencast from laptops, phones and tablets to three 65-inch TVs on mobile carts, and there’s an abundance of white board space.
“Our vision is for Douglas to be the innovation hub for our locations,” Brown said.
Brown said it was a “labor of love” as she; Randall; evening student success coordinator Lou Robinson; and retired Lt. Col. Scott Mahone, former director of operations for the Regional Academic Centers, hand-selected all the furniture, equipment and design elements for the space. They even assembled all the furniture themselves.
“It shows how much we were invested in this, that we wanted it done perfectly,” Brown said. “What better way to know more about the potential for the space than to actually be there from inception to production?”
The Workforce Innovation Lab has already been used for meetings by Leadership Douglas and Mercer Enrollment Management, and several other University departments and community agencies have expressed interest in hosting events there.
“The excitement that this one resource is creating within the University and the community is amazing,” Brown said. “I want this to show and continue our shared commitment to advancing the workforce development in Douglas County. This place is where students and professionals can access the latest technology, engage in our experiential learning opportunities and develop the skills they need to succeed in today’s market as well as their chosen field.”