Nearly four decades ago, Billy Spencer graduated from what was then Anson Technical Institute, with a certificate in machining.
That credential allowed him to support his wife and two sons, and even put all three through college.
Now, as South Piedmont Community College’s Industrial Systems program lead, he’s working to help future generations start their own careers in the manufacturing industry — and in the process, he’s found the greatest fulfillment of his career.
“I was raised to give back, and that’s what I feel like I’m doing now, giving back to South Piedmont, and Anson and Union counties. These places raised me, and I’ve come full circle,” he said.
Spencer graduated from Anson High School in 1981, and like many new high school graduates, was unsure what direction his life would take.
“All I knew was that if I was going to feed my family, I couldn’t just go get any job. I needed a career, something that I could excel in to do better for my family,” he said.
Spencer enrolled at Anson Tech, pursuing training in welding and machining. (At the time, Anson Technical Institute, which later became Anson Community College, served Anson County. When South Piedmont Community College was created by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1999, it replaced Anson Community College and Union Technical Education Center, becoming the state’s newest community college.)
Between machining and welding, it was machining that caught Spencer’s interest. Machining is the process of using a machine tool to turn raw material, usually metal, into a needed finished product. Spencer graduated with his machining certificate in 1985. He went on to specialize in machining parts for industrial pumps.
“I was a good machinist. It just clicked for me. That’s how I spent more than 30 years,” said Spencer, who also served 13 years with the Army National Guard. “I liked problem solving with my hands, making a prototype for a part that would get the job done.”
His manufacturing career allowed him to buy a home for his family, cars, all the necessities and family vacations, too. He was also able to put both his sons and his wife through college.
“I was able to do everything for them that I wanted to do. Through manufacturing, I didn’t have to fight to feed and clothe my family. We never went without,” Spencer said.
A few years ago, Spencer injured his back, which brought an end to his machining career. He took a job as a security guard at South Piedmont, but soon, President Dr. Maria Pharr learned of his history in the machining field.
“She asked me to teach in the machining program. I didn’t think I could do it, but she asked me to try,” Spencer said.
“I guess you could say that South Piedmont has always been a believer in their people. They believed in me when I was a student, and when I came back here to work, they believed I could do more than I believed I could.”
Spencer stepped his toe into teaching, and soon he was running. He now oversees the College’s Industrial Systems program.
“It’s been more than I ever expected. I worked in machining for a long time, but it wasn’t until I started teaching that I truly found my purpose,” Spencer said. “I love what I do. I love the students. It does my heart good.”
When students start in the program, they’re often unsure of themselves, just like Spencer was when he started teaching. Some doubt their mechanical abilities. Some doubt themselves in general. He’s had several who’ve come from other countries and have had to learn a new language while also learning a new career.
No matter their unique obstacles, Spencer’s aim is the same: to help them believe in themselves, and to help them see that they too can have all they want in life through a career in manufacturing.
“We’re all just machinists, no matter where we come from, or if we’re male or female, if this is a first career or a career change,” Spencer said. “I find common ground with my students. I worked as a machinist for 35 years, and I had to work with all kinds of people. That prepared me to connect with students who come from all walks of life. I was being molded for 35 years to do the work that I’m doing now.”
Several of Spencer’s students have since graduated and are now succeeding in the manufacturing industry — just like he did.
“That’s my purpose. To help them get started on a career that will help them support their own families. That is everything to me. My purpose in life is fulfilled when I help my students gain confidence and the skills they need to be successful.”
South Piedmont offers several programs designed for students seeking careers in manufacturing, including welding, mechatronics, and industrial maintenance. For more information, visit https://spcc.edu/areas-of-study/manufacturing/.