Presidents from the six community colleges in North Carolina’s Northwest Prosperity Zone shared details on the regions overabundance of good paying advanced manufacturing jobs, and the challenge of finding people to fill seats in community college classes that build a highly skilled workforce for employers. Dr. Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College, host of the event, offered welcoming remarks and said that the focus of each presentation would be what each college is doing to support advanced manufacturing in the region.
Catawba Valley Community College, Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute, Mayland Community College, McDowell Technical Community College, Western Piedmont Community College and Wilkes Community College (WCC) serve the dozen counties in the Northwest Prosperity Zone: Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, McDowell, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey counties. The event drew a robust crowd of fellow college presidents and their staffs, business and industry representatives, elected leaders, chamber of commerce members, economic development professionals, college trustees and other supporters of the community colleges in the northwest region.
Dr. Cox kicked off the celebration by highlighting the partnership Wilkes Community College has developed with GE Aviation in West Jefferson. The Customized Training Project the college developed for GE Aviation, valued at $1.2 million, played a critical role in allowing GE Aviation to nearly double the size of their operation in West Jefferson, adding over 100 well-paying jobs in Ashe County.
Travis Ritchie, GE Aviation senior employee human resources manager, spoke about the value GE Aviation sees in its partnership with Wilkes Community College. According to Ritchie, the college played a critical role in allowing GE Aviation to move from doing five to thirty-four processes in the plant and to go from 79 employees in 2013 to 272 employees currently. Ritchie said the company believes so strongly in this community, their workers and the partnership with Wilkes Community College that they are investing $153 million to expand the operations in West Jefferson.
Dr. Mark Poarch, president of Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute (CCC&TI), said his college’s ongoing partnership with the Economic Development Commission to establish customized workforce training has been a factor in companies deciding to locate in the college’s service area, Caldwell and Watauga counties, and for many expansions and new business recruitment. Poarch said the college has the ability to be nimble and responsive to the diverse needs of industry.
Deborah Murray, executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission, also spoke on behalf of CCC&TI saying, “They are my partner in recruitment. They are my partner in retention. They ingeniously create training programs and pathways when an industry considers coming. The very first institute that was created was designed to provide Google with trained workers. Eight years later, the college has 15 different institutes, all developed in response to the increasing demands for a qualified workforce.”
A few examples of programs created in response to local business and industry needs include the electrical lineman program developed through a partnership with Duke Energy and Blue Ridge Energies; the upholstery program in partnership with Fairfield Chair Company; and the IT Institute in partnership with Google.
The local economy in Caldwell a decade ago was dominated by furniture and textiles. Today it includes plastics, packaging, pharmaceuticals and information technology, which offer prosperous career opportunities. According to the Caldwell EDC, from 2015 to 2016, Caldwell County’s median income increased by 11 percent, boosting Caldwell County from 19th lowest median income in the state, to a rank of 40. Caldwell also recently posted its best single job growth month since before 2000, when it added 695 jobs in January. Since 2010, Caldwell’s unemployment rate has gone from 17 percent down to 5.6 percent today.
Furniture and textile companies like Henredon, Valdese Weavers and Drexel once dominated Burke County, home of Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC). Using technology advances, these industries have begun using new processes that make manufacturing less labor intensive. Community colleges are retraining existing employees and training new employees going into advanced manufacturing.
Dr. Michael S. Helmick, president of WPCC, said his college has established training, interning and apprenticing partnerships with many local companies. The college provides apprentices and develops training modules for Continental Teves Inc., which makes advanced auto braking systems; trains all workers in advanced manufacturing processes for Peds Legwear, a sock company owned by Gildan; develops new production systems and trains workers at SAFT American, a manufacturer of batteries for the military; trains employees at Ekornes, a high-end leather furniture company, on Gerber CNC cutters, high-speed sewing and advanced modularized frame systems; trains employees in advanced robotics used in fiberglass layup and production at Molded Fiberglass, a company that manufactures large truck cabs and bumper systems; and trains employees for Leviton, a manufacturer of electrical devices for home and industry, Siegwerk, which manufactures printing inks, and Ice River Springs, maker of proprietary and custom bottled water. WPCC is also assisting Meridian Specialty Yarns to convert a traditional yard dye house into a state-of-the-art dye operation.
“Western Piedmont is developing the next generation work. We are also establishing certificates that will meet the needs for workers right now but creating stackable certificates to develop workers for long-term educational credits,” said Dr. Helmick. “Our newest advanced manufacturing program is mechatronics. Through a partnership with Burke County, Cannon Foundation and Golden LEAF Foundation, we are building a 7,000-square-foot building to house the electronics and robotics portion of the mechatronics program. The future of advanced manufacturing is bright. The biggest need right now is to find trained workers. The industry needs community colleges to provide that training, and in turn, community colleges need industry to support their programs.”
Mayland Community College reports that its two-year-old Applied Engineering Program has been popular for both students and employers. The first three students to earn an Associate in Applied Engineering degree found employment or advanced within their company immediately after graduation. According to Dr. John Boyd, president of Mayland Community College (MCC), one graduate moved from an hourly to salaried position in the design department at Altec. The second graduate worked on the manufacturing floor at Altec, then received an offer for a full-time engineering technology position from another local company upon graduation. That student opted to stay at Altec and has applied for a position in the design department. The third graduate interviewed with three local employers, Baldor Electric in Weaverville, Advanced Superabrasives in Mars Hill, and GE Aviation in Asheville. He accepted a full-time position with full benefits at GE Aviation.
“These graduates landed well-paying jobs right out of college,” said Boyd. “After reaching permanent status, Altec employees on the manufacturing floor make around $15 per hour. Employees in the design department move into the $40,000-$45,000 per year range. The graduate hired at GE started making around $18 per hour with full benefits and received a defined pathway to reach $30 per hour.”
Boyd added that it is not unusual for employers to come to the college to scout for skilled workers even before the students graduate. McManus Microwave in Bakersville offered a part-time position to second-year machining students, to become a full-time position upon graduation. “This student chose to finish school before taking a position; however, a large number of our other students are already employed with industry partners like BRP, Altec Inc., Advanced Superabrasives, Glen Raven, Hickory Springs Manufacturing, Baldor Electric, among others,” said Boyd. “These students came to MCC to upgrade their credentials in order to advance within these companies.”
Altec recently completed an expansion, which caused an immediate need for at least 50 additional skilled workers. Altec provides an educational reimbursement plan to employees; training of current manufacturing employees allows the company to promote from within to fill technical positions with people who are experienced with Altec processes and who have already chosen to live and work in the community.
BRP needs skilled CNC machine operators. The company maintains a close relationship with Mitchell High School, and MCC offers a Career & College Promise CNC machining certificate program on the campus of Mitchell High. This creates a direct pathway for Mitchell High students to enter the CNC Machining program while in high school, proceed through the program at MCC, and enter the workforce with useful skills and familiarity with the types of work performed by CNC machinist.
McDowell County is ranked third in N.C. in the percentage of the workforce employed by manufacturing.
Dr. John Gossett, president of McDowell Technical Community College (MTCC), said, “This makes advanced manufacturing very important to us. The MTCC Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center has brought together many constituents from across the county to address manufacturing in McDowell County. The magic is in the collaboration.”
McDowell County and city governments, MTCC, McDowell County Schools, private employers and public agencies are all working together to prepare the workforce for jobs of the future.
“Like the other community colleges present here today, we are working hard to recruit students to advanced manufacturing programs in order to meet the demands of industry,” added Gossett. “We are beginning early. We are working with McDowell County Schools, bringing in employers to talk with students throughout K-12 to inform them of skills they need to focus on to prepare them for the future.”
Dr. Keith Mackie, executive vice president of Catawba Valley Community College, spoke about the new Alexander County Academy located in CVCC’s Alexander Applied Technologies Center in Taylorsville.
The Alexander Furniture Academy is a public/private partnership between major Alexander County furniture manufacturers and the college to prepare students for skilled positions that are in high demand by some of the largest employers in our area. The Academy’s founding partners are Craftmaster Furniture, Kincaid Furniture and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. In the 24-week training, expert craftspeople teach a learning track of Sewing Operator or Upholstery Craftsman.
CVCC also offers the Manufacturing Academy, an industry-driven training course to prepare students with necessary skills to succeed in manufacturing, and Apprenticeship Catawba, an exciting new partnership between local advanced manufacturers, Catawba and Alexander County Schools and the college.
The March 20th meeting was held in honor of North Carolina Community College Day celebrated statewide on March 29. With 58 colleges located across North Carolina and nearly 710,000 students, the North Carolina Community College System is the third largest institution of higher education in the United States and is internationally recognized for its programs supporting economic and workforce development.