This year, five South Sound high school students landed post-graduation jobs at Tacoma companies Aim Aerospace and Toray Composites after completing the aerospace program at the Pierce County Skills Center.

And that success is only expected to grow, with a number of students applying for jobs at the end of summer and into next year, with a recent expansion that has added more programs at the center.

The Skills Center, which opened with phase I of III complete in 2010, has grown from about 28,000 square feet to more than 65,000 square feet, with the completion of phases II-a and II-b of the project in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Phase II, which remodeled the former Safeway building on the center's property at 16117 Canyon Road E. in Puyallup, added aerospace composites and building trades programs in 2012 and will add two more programs this fall: automotive technology and aerospace machining/fabrication.

“Our most direct job placement opportunity is with our aerospace program,” said Michelle Ledbetter, director of the center. “We have a very strong aerospace advisory committee, and they've worked to develop a manufacturing technology certificate of competency. That way, when students leave us, they come to their future employers with a certificate that outlines specifically what they're capable of doing and at what level.”

The committee was created after Ledbetter approached industry leaders, like Jeff Moore, vice president of Aim Aerospace, to help design the curriculum.

“We went to these business partners this time last year and essentially said, 'What do you need in an employee, and we'll build curriculum around that. So, it really does match exactly what they're needing,” said Ledbetter.

The five former skills center students who have been hired out of the program have gone to work for Aim and Toray, but Ledbetter said that doesn't mean her aerospace students are limited to careers in that industry.

“Although aerospace is kind of our vehicle to deliver the curriculum, students would be prepared to enter any entry-level manufacturing position,” Ledbetter said.

Beyond aerospace, Ledbetter said she expects the automotive program to produce a significant number of students who will transition directly into the workforce. All the programs, though, are designed to help students ease into whatever path they choose after high school.

“There's really something for every interest area, whether it's medical or engineering, or health and human services. There's really something in each of those fields,” she said.

At the end of August, she had more than 400 students enrolled, up from about 320 for the 2012-2013 academic year. Students in Bethel, Eatonville, Franklin Pierce, Orting, Steilacoom, Sumner, Tacoma and White River school districts are eligible to participate in the programs.

“All of our programs are just about at capacity and that's with still a couple weeks of registration,” she said.

The final phase of the center, which received $11.6 million in state funding during the last legislative session, will add more than 26,000 square feet to the campus, including a culinary arts facility. Construction on that project is set to begin next summer, with the facility opening for the 2015-2016 school year.