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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Community close up: Union County is kicking

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New education programs and changes in agriculture and air travel are making big impacts.


Union County’s growth and success is occurring across the board in manufacturing, aerospace, agriculture, infrastructure and education. The county southeast of Charlotte that shares a southern border with South Carolina has much to offer businesses and residents. 

A total of 195 manufacturing firms, including 16 international companies, collectively employ 14,800 people.  Aerospace companies account for 4,500 jobs. The Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport is updating its runways along with adding hangar space to accommodate an increasing number of corporate jets.

The city of Monroe’s new 155-acre Expressway Commerce Park is its third industrial park and a crucial addition since Monroe Corporate Center and AeroPointe Industrial Centre are nearly full.

As the state’s third-largest agricultural producer, Union County has 957 farms covering 186,626 acres. It ranked No. 2 in the state’s soybean production in 2021 and No. 1 in wheat production in 2020.


EARLY CAREER EXPLORATION AND FLEXIBLE EDUCATION

This extensive variety of commerce gives students in Union County’s 13 high schools many choices for jobs and careers. 

Union County is pioneering ways for high school graduates to achieve a free college education tailored to negate scheduling conflicts with jobs or personal responsibilities. Students wishing to add job training courses compatible with current employment have education options designed to be flexible at South Piedmont Community College, with campuses in Union and Anson counties, and Wingate University’s locations in Wingate, Charlotte and Hendersonville.

Carl Bishop, top left, heads academic affairs at South Piedmont Community College. Wingate University’s Wayfind Scholars mentoring program draws praise from local officials.

“In the almost 10 years I’ve been on staff at the Chamber, we have worked with our education, workforce development and business partners to collaborate on retaining, recruiting and developing a talent pipeline to serve the needs of our business community,” says Union County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Pat Kahle. “The Chamber’s role is to convene these partners to discuss ways to meet the challenges, leverage the opportunities and develop programs to do both. We’ve learned over that time that workforce development begins at birth and extends through retirement.”

This philosophy is pervasive. 

“So many times students would have to choose between work, their families and education, and we try to make it so they don’t have to make that choice,” says Carl Bishop, SPCC’s vice president for academic affairs. “We rebuilt almost 500 courses in our catalog to reflect flexibility. When life happens, they no longer have to make choices. They can be in person this week, online the next.”

A program known as HyFlex Classroom Technology is one of several higher-education innovations and has drawn interest from other cities and colleges in the state, Bishop says. 

“It’s a conversation happening within the community college system. We started offering it before the system was set up for it, so we’ve been in touch with others at the regional and state levels about how to replicate it.

“People don’t have to fit their lives into college; they can fit college into their lives. The phrase ‘Are students ready for college?’ has become ‘Are we ready for our students?’”

Brian Matthews

“Union County offers the best of both worlds. It’s business-friendly and companies thrive with our skilled workforce and close proximity to the Charlotte metropolitan area. What’s just as important is that it’s a spirited community where families choose to live for quality of life, low taxes, great schools, and more. We’re proud of those attributes Union County is known for. We certainly welcome any opportunity for both employers and families to consider planting their future in Union County.”
– Brian Matthews, Union County manager

Union’s healthcare and farming/agriculture segments are committed to the process.

Agriculture education is available as early as elementary school, with classroom presentations from Cooperative Extension personnel. Atrium Health, Union’s Health Sciences Academy, introduces elementary students to the health field. 

“This continues throughout middle school and high school. In this program, students see the opportunity for their own economic growth through career training and, eventually, employment,” says Denise White, Atrium Health Union’s vice president, facility executive and chief nursing executive. “Atrium Health is seeing value by investing in these  students as we continue to think of innovative ways to increase the healthcare workforce pipeline, for physicians and nurses, as well as all areas of the workforce.”

Exposing students early and continually to career options where they live is key.

“The work in the school system that we’re doing to help the next generation is vital because that’s where change really happens,” says county Extension Director Andrew Baucom. “They are the ones who will be making decisions moving forward. Every high school in Union County has an agricultural program, and we have two in the middle schools, with the goal to add more in order to generate that workforce development and interest in our youth early on.

“Union County Schools also have created agricultural technology programs that are taught in elementary schools, which feed into middle and high schools, which they can continue to a community college or four-year university.”

The Chamber is also reaching out to students long before they are close to graduating
high school. 

“The Chamber’s Workforce Development Task Force is focused on partnering with Union County Public Schools as early as middle school to help students with career exploration before they make critical decisions about high school classes,” Kahle says. “The Chamber’s Middle School Speakers Bureau partners with two different middle schools each year and sends business and industry representatives into the schools to ‘take over’ a classroom for the day six times during the year. The speakers complete a training session to help them effectively focus on essential soft skills, career progression and hands-on activities that help the students better understand the company and industry.”

SPCC creates courses and degrees that meet the needs of local employers.

“We understand at South Piedmont that a huge part of our mission is driven by workforce,” Bishop says. “Even with our transfer programs, we try to align with the workforce because, at the end of the day, when a student goes for a four-year degree, when they come out they want jobs. So we try to promote economic growth.”

So does Atrium Health Union.

“Atrium Health’s partnerships with Union County Public Schools, South Piedmont Community College and Wingate University are designed to benefit everyone,” White says. “We all have a vested interest in ensuring that all students are afforded the best opportunities for learning and career development, regardless of their economic status.

“The partnerships with South Piedmont Community College and Wingate University continue the education and employment pipeline for students seeking degree-required careers. After completion of a degree, students have an even greater opportunity for breaking the economic mobility barriers that threaten some underserved and underrepresented communities by becoming Atrium Health teammates.”

EDUCATION PAST HIGH SCHOOL FOR EVERYONE

Wingate University has invested more than $2.5 million in Wayfind, a mentorship program that begins in eighth grade and prioritizes students who are historically underrepresented, such as students of color who could be the first in their family to seek education past high school, according to the university website. The high school class of 2023, the program’s first graduating class, includes a student wanting to be a social worker, another with plans to be a police officer and another whose goal is to be a therapist.

The mentorship program selects 10 students from Monroe Middle School and 10 from
East Union Middle School. The process includes the opportunity to graduate from college debt-free.

“The partnership between Union County Public Schools and Wingate University is truly unique. I am not aware of any other partnership between a public school district and independent university that offers college access programming and full-tuition scholarships to deserving students,” says Abby Holland, director of Wayfind and a Wingate assistant professor. “While the aim of the program is to prepare students to be successful in college, it’s important to me that scholars feel a sense of belonging in the Wayfind community. One benefit to Wayfind Scholars transitioning to Wingate is already having a community and knowing individuals who can advise them formally and informally. Wayfind Scholars who attend Wingate will also have the opportunity to give back by being a mentor to middle and high school students.”

She says seven Wayfind scholars graduate this year from Monroe High School and three from Forest Hills High School. All have applied to Wingate and all but one have committed to full-time enrollment in the fall. “Students apply to Wayfind in the fall of eighth grade. The selection committee announces who has been accepted soon after students return from winter break, and mentoring begins a few weeks later. When scholars enter ninth grade, they must maintain at least a B average and meet standards for school attendance and discipline.”

The program began in 2018. There are 80 Wayfind scholars in grades eight through 12.

SPCC, with an enrollment of about 7,500 students, has several academic routes. In February it was named a Best in Showcase winner and national top 10 finalist at the Bellwether Awards in San Antonio in the Instructional Programs and Services category for Learning Reimagined and its HyFlex concept. 

“It’s about reducing barriers so we close the education-attainment gap by identifying the top barriers for our students, which are finances, employment and work schedules, family obligations and access to online ability and the ability to perform in online classes,” Bishop says. “If we take the barriers out of the way, students will access education and impact the workforce for area employers.”

Learning Reimagined is patterned after British company BibliU, an EdTech universal learning enablement platform used by 114 institutions worldwide, according to its website. The concept helps reduce costs and add flexibility.

 “Books can be expensive,” Bishop says, “so we partnered with that company to reduce textbook and resources fees to $60 per course. Depending on the content, some courses normally could be $1,000. There was a staggering number of students who could not
afford that.”

“South Piedmont’s Career in a Year program provides adult students the opportunity to earn their degree in a shorter period of time,” says Kahle. “Certificates and diploma programs allow adult students to up their skills in a short period of time and increase their earning potential.” Career in a Year includes healthcare, truck driving, welding, bookkeeping and office administration along with several other professions.

Another route at SPCC is ApprenticeshipIMPACT which, “provides students who are interested in workforce-specific programs the opportunity to work and learn while they are pursuing education,” Bishop says. “So there’s an incentive for employers to train them on the job and have more positive outcomes in recruitment and retention.

“For students, it’s attractive because they have a job. They also have a wage that is progressive, so they aren’t forced to choose between work and school. All of it is tuition-waived, so they don’t have to pay a thing.”

In health care, White says, possible careers include business, teaching, emergency medical services, physicians assistant, physical therapy and many non-medical employment opportunities. SPCC partners with Atrium Health and other medical providers throughout the county. This has all been made possible by thinking about what we can
do to meet the students and their needs when they enter the workforce.”

“In five years,” Bishop says, “I hope to be able to say we have closed the education gap and have helped our business and industry partners. For our residents, it’s a project of upward mobility, and workforces need a solid talent strategy. Businesses that find our county attractive will want to know if there is a talent supply. We’re making contributions to closing the education gap and helping the workforce.”


AGRICULTURE

“One of the unfortunate misconceptions about agriculture is that it’s a simple occupation,” Baucom says. “But you can take predominately all the science, technology and math jobs you can think of, put them all together, and you have an agriculture producer. At the end of the day, that ag person is a mathematician, an accountant, a teacher, and they do such a wide variety of things with the most technically advanced equipment outside of the military. It’s mind-blowing. These guys have to be computer coders. Farming is not one single person out riding on a tractor digging up dirt.”

Fresh, local produce is popular at South Piedmont Community College’s farmers market.

Based on its population per square mile, Union [640 square miles] recently was reclassified as an urban county, according to the Department of Agriculture. Still, Baucom says, agriculture is the second-highest county employer, behind health care, and is the No.1 economic driver.

In addition to crops, the county is a major producer of livestock and poultry, as well as “green industry” products such as sod and turf farms, and tree and perennial nurseries. A changing demographic, he says, shows more small-farm operations — gardeners who sell directly to consumers, farmers markets, restaurants and online platforms such as Union County Food Hub, which connects local growers to businesses.

“That sector has grown 200% since 2015, so it really shows the up-and-coming version of what agriculture looks like,” Baucom says. “We have third-, fourth-, fifth-generation farmers in the industry, as well as new folks in their 20s and 30s, which speaks to the legacy and future of agriculture here as an economic driver.”

Wingate offers a biology degree with a concentration in agricultural food systems. It also is next-door neighbor to the future 3,000-square-foot, multi-use Building Agriculture Resources and Nutrition (BARN). Details will be presented to county commissioners soon.

“We have input from a lot of entities. The town of Wingate, the university, the board of directors for economic development and the Agricultural Advisory Council all are in support,” says Rachael Holzman, new opportunities manager for Monroe-Union County Economic Development. “We’re also working to secure private funding and grant funding. The first part will be funding for an architect and building plans.”

BARN, she says, will have a commercial food kitchen, access to food processing equipment, and help farmers with product shipment. 

“Wingate can have students learn and work in the BARN,” she says. “Or, people can come work on their, say, catering and then they’ll say ‘Hey, business is booming; let’s open a restaurant,’ and the town of Wingate benefits from that.” 

The facility will be near the eastern end of the Monroe Expressway. “The bypass has been great for industry… farmers are not working 9 to 5, and they need a place to get their trucks moving quickly.”

BARN “would be a primary educator, and the work being done in K–through –12 is a heavy push for agribusiness and the food system,” Holzman says. “Farming is an incredible profession, and it’s a lot of hard work. There’s so much more than riding on a tractor. So many kids have no idea; the grocery stores don’t just magically make food appear. What we can do here with economic development is we deal with everything after it comes out of the ground.” 


AIRPORT GROWTH

The Monroe airport’s master plan, which is updated every 20 years, recently received a major overhaul.

“We just finished the plan and submitted it. It’s very important to the city of Monroe,” says former airport manager Peter Cevallos. “Just like our highways are part of the state and national plan, our airports across the state and across the country are part of a state and national aviation plan. So this master plan is a roadmap at both the state and federal levels.”

The airport is a ‘non-commercial general aviation facility,’ meaning it caters to smaller planes. It’s also a U.S. Customs stop, and houses a large amount of private and corporate hangars. It’s a preferred location for corporate jets. And it has a flight school.

“So where are we today? We’re moving forward. Union County has gotten bigger, and more industries are being created and our airport is a reflection of that growth,” says Cevallos, who resigned in late April. (Robert Heitz is now interim manager.) “So with more companies coming out there and setting up shop, they use the corporate and charter operations. So we’ve seen an uptick in airport operations. We are now averaging close to 200 operations a day.”

Two years ago, Cevallos had 110 private planes in hangars with a total value of $25 million, including a $10 million corporate jet. Those numbers are growing, he says, “because people use airplanes as a business tool. It’s a reflection of the area and the customers we have. So many people are buying airplanes and parking their planes. They’re either privately owned, or owned by their corporation and people fly to conduct their business, like a company rep going to see clients. The privately owned planes people use for instance to take to the beach. We’re getting more and more of that. There are planes out there as inexpensive as $50,000, about likean SUV.”

With that demand comes the need for hangar space. 

“I’m actually currently working on two hangars. I’m facilitating leases that have to be done through the city to lease the land to build the hangars,” Cevallos says. “And I’m working with another gentleman who wants to build more hangars to bring in more corporate jets.”

Corporations are switching to private aircraft, he says, “because what it costs a company to buy three commercial airline tickets to send their executives to a meeting is much more than booking a charter flight. And it’s not just business executives. I had a corporate jet land here recently with a construction crew in jeans carrying hard hats and tool boxes.”

In the future, the airport hopes to get a tower. Currently, flight plans are done through radio frequency.

“But that’s not an amendment to the airport; it would be part of the national plan. And it’s a structure within itself, so it wouldn’t be operated by the city of Monroe, but by the FAA,” he says, “so I have to request permission, and I’m in the process. It could take a year to approve it, then we have to get in the conversation about grants and funds from the city. It’s a process.”

His message: “We’re here, and we’re kicking. Come see us.”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

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