Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Higher Ed: N.C. colleges remain essential players in developing workers

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Collaborative effort

Economic developers, businesses and community colleges are working together to fill critical gaps in North Carolina’s workforce.

North Carolina needs workers. The number of jobs has outpaced the size of the labor force in 78 of the state’s 100 counties over the last three years, according to a recent report from NC Chamber Foundation, an arm of the NC Chamber that searches for solutions to challenges faced by businesses and communities statewide. It expects that trend to continue. N.C. Department of Commerce reported that the state’s June seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 3.4%, which is less than what many economists consider full employment. 

In response to the shortage, efforts are underway statewide. Gaston Business Association, which promotes and supports companies and economic development in its namesake county, for example, is working with 24 manufacturers, who forecast they’ll need to fill 3,000 jobs — mostly machine operators, maintenance technicians, supervisors, electrical control technicians, inspectors and materials handlers — by the end of next year. “We are seeing a 90% gap between job demand and talent supply,” says Vincent Ginski, GBA’s director of strategic initiatives. As a first step to meet workforce demand, he introduced the Talent Pipeline Management program to the county early this year.

TPM is an initiative of NC Chamber Foundation and U.S. Chamber Foundation, which is dedicated to strengthening the country’s long term economic competitiveness. TPM helps employers identify and fill skills gaps in their local workforce. “The TPM framework is a laser-focused employer-driven approach to increasing the quality and quantity of our talent supply,” Ginski says. “It leverages the collective voice of our industry partners, educators and workforce partners to build and improve talent pipelines. Participation and engagement have been great. Our employers are excited and ready to get to work on building solutions. In the span of seven months, we’ve already done a good job of gathering and analyzing data and setting goals, and now it’s time to execute our strategies.”

Ginksi was one of 23 business leaders who attended a recent U.S. Chamber Foundation-sponsored TPM Academy. The month-long initiative drills down on strategies for driving workforce development, says NC Chamber Foundation President Meredith Archie. “When individuals graduate from the TPM Academy, they go back into their communities and bring employers together to explore the skills needed,” she says. 

TMP is part of Vision 2030, NC Chamber Foundation’s long-range plan, which was developed with the state’s job creators to secure a more viable future for the workforce. “We’re grateful to the business community for developing this kind of forward-thinking plan to make North Carolina more competitive,” Archie says.

As businesses within the TPM program identify their critical workforce needs and create solutions, N.C. Biotechnology Center is embarking on a similar journey for the life sciences industry. Its North Carolina Life Sciences Apprenticeship Consortium brings together life sciences companies to collaborate on developing opportunities for students and others to learn skills while working. Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, Lilly, Pfizer, Novartis Gene Therapies and Merck are among the major players in the Research Triangle Park region that have signed on as charter members. KBI Biopharma and Novo Nordisk have joined the effort, too.

The Consortium will create standards for job competencies, promote apprenticeship opportunities to nontraditional populations and sponsor mass recruiting events, says Laura Rowley, N.C. Biotechnology Center’s vice president of life science economic development. In addition, charter members will develop their own Registered Apprenticeship Programs. RAPs consist of supervised on-the-job training, classroom learning and a standard wage scale. Apprentices earn a portable, nationally recognized credential upon completion of the program, and some may have the opportunity to earn an associate degree.

RAPs in North Carolina are overseen by ApprenticeshipNC, a program of the N.C. Community College System, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Labor. Recently the state’s community college system was awarded a $4 million grant to strengthen ApprenticeshipNC over the next four years through modernization, expansion and diversification of RAPs. The goal is improved completion rates for underrepresented populations and within underserved and rural communities.

The Consortium will start promoting its new RAPs this fall, sponsor pre-apprenticeships early next year and start recruiting apprentices in spring and summer 2023. The state’s community colleges will provide the training component. Specific colleges will be determined based on the location of participating companies. “So far, Durham Tech, Wake Tech, Central Carolina Community College and Johnston Community College are on board, but we are looking to engage other community colleges as the number of companies participating in our Consortium increases,” Rowley says.

The N.C. Community College System established ApprenticeshipNC to help North Carolina businesses and workers succeed. “Our statewide program offers consulting and support services for new, expanding, and existing businesses and industries in all 100 North Carolina counties through our network of 58 community colleges,” says Kathryn Castelloes, Apprentice-shipNC director. Its popularity is growing. “We had over 130 new apprenticeship programs last year, and there are even more employers today who are looking to apprenticeships to fill their workforce needs,” she says. 

ApprenticeshipNC helps employers by teaching essential skills, understanding core competencies and training future fulltime workers. “We work with all business sectors — both small and large,” Castelloes says. Manufacturing, construction, cyber security and health care are among the industries with the largest labor needs. 

Last year, ApprenticeshipNC helped more than 13,000 individuals seeking apprenticeships and has experienced an increase in high school pre-apprenticeships, which help jumpstart the state’s talent pipeline. “The future is bright,” Castelloes says. “We’re hoping to make ApprenticeshipNC a household name in high schools, community colleges and universities.” 

Guilford Technical Community College is taking apprenticeships to the next level with its Guilford Apprenticeship Partners program. GAP is spearheaded by local businesses, which determine labor needs. The college then provides education and training to ensure graduates meet them, says GTCC President Anthony Clarke. “We work with our corporate partners to develop classroom instruction and customized training courses to prepare employees and apprentices for the workplace,” he says. “Apprentices receive both a paycheck and schooling, and about 94% of them go on to fulltime employment after their apprenticeships end.”

Clarke says GAP is built on a proven model that allows companies to take a proactive approach to workforce challenges and build reliable talent pipelines. While companies of all sizes and across myriad industries benefit from GAP, the flexibility of the apprenticeship model means it also can be tailored to specific company and industry needs. 

As demand for highly skilled workers continues to grow, the list of participating industries will keep expanding as more companies invest in the apprenticeship strategy. “Each year, more companies in our area start new apprenticeship opportunities to fill skills gaps and stay competitive in today’s economy,” Clarke says. “This is a great program and a great partnership. We’re proud to play a role in building the workforce and helping young people start their careers.”

Smart move

MBA programs statewide were forced completely online by the COVID-19 pandemic. They aren’t looking back, much to the approval of students and businesses.

Many executive education programs have included online learning components for years. But the importance of attending virtual classes recently skyrocketed.

The COVID-19 pandemic re-shaped how we learn, live, work and play. Most of these changes can be traced back to stay-at-home orders, which kept people apart to slow the communicable virus’s spread. Many daily functions, from shopping to work, went virtual. A high-speed internet connection and smartphone, tablet or computer are all you need to participate. 

Virtual classrooms make learning more accessible. That was a big reason why UNC Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business decided to pivot its MBA program to online learning even before the pandemic arrived in early 2020. “We were lucky that we had already launched our online MBA program before COVID hit,” says Nivine Richie, Wilmington’s associate dean for graduate and international programs and a professor of finance. “We had decided how we were going to set it up and what the teaching model would look like, so we weren’t forced to build the plane while it was flying.”

With courses and technology in place, Richie says all that remained was moving Wilmington’s face-to-face MBA program to the virtual world. It has been a popular decision. She says the school’s hybrid and face-to-face programs have ended because students are choosing the convenience of remote study. The program’s enrollment was 623 this year, up from 152 in 2019. ranked it the country’s third fastest-growing online MBA program in May. 

UNC Pembroke’s MBA program is seeing similar success. The school’s two-decades-old traditional MBA program started an online-virtual hybrid option in 2017. Jeff Bolles, interim MBA director and lecturer at Pembroke’s Thomas School of Business, says about 135 students were enrolled. Two years later, the university phased out the face-to-face component and took the program exclusively online.

Pembroke struck a partnership with Academic Partners, which helps universities develop online education, in 2019. It led to an accelerated MBA program, allowing students to earn a degree quickly by compressing the 36-credit hour program into seven weeks, making it less expensive and more efficient than traditional programs. “Many of our students work while going to school, and they, along with their  employers, are keen for them to complete their degrees,” Bolles says. “Along with their MBAs come opportunities for career advancement.”

Pembroke’s MBA program enrollment reached 500 in 2019. Fueled by COVID-19, its reputation and an accelerated option, enrollment has more than doubled to 1,100.  “We are experiencing greater diversity among our students, including a number of them coming from the military and countries outside the United States,” Bolles says. “Our program also opens doors for people with disabilities who are flourishing in our online learning environment.”

Last year, Pembroke’s accelerated online MBA was ranked the country’s ninth best one-year program by College Consensus, whose grades are based on publisher rankings and student reviews. Joining it on the list at No. 7 was the one-year MBA program at nearby Fayetteville State University’s Broadwell College of Business and Economics. The MBA@FayState, which offers 12 concentrations and eight graduate certificates, delivers a unique curriculum for all types of graduate students, including military, recent undergraduates and working professionals.

Modern MBA programs bring more than convenience and quality. They create diversity, too. Eric Gladney, assistant dean and MBA director at North Carolina A&T University, remembers when he received his MBA from University of Rochester; he was one of only three Black students in the program. Times have changed, and business schools, such as A&T’s Willie A. Deese College of Business and Economics, are educating a more diverse population. He says A&T doesn’t market exclusively to minorities. Instead, it strives to strike a balance and cater to a diverse student body. “This leads to more diversity in the marketplace, which is more reflective of what the United States looks like,” he says. 

U.S. News ranked A&T’s business school among the top 100 in the country this year. “Typically, the MBA has not, unfortunately, been a degree where many African Americans and other minorities have gained entrance,” Gladney says. “We hope to open up that field, and I think corporations that come to us recognize our students make up under-represented populations.”

When it comes to building diversity among its student population, N.C. State University’s Poole College of Management has taken an intentional approach. “The college recently appointed Tayah Lin Butler as its first assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says Michael Dixon, director of admissions and recruitment at the college. It’s paying off. Bloomberg Business Week, in its first diversity ranking, named the Jenkins MBA program tops in the country. It received a perfect score, which is based half on race and ethnicity and half on gender of participating students.

Dixon says the Jenkins MBA program offers options for students, and that fosters racial, gender and geographic diversity. Students can participate in classes solely online or take advantage of in-person evening classes. In fall of 2021, N.C. State’s online MBA program attracted 89 people. “[It’s] a good number, allowing for smaller class size — normally between 20 to 30 students,” he says. 

N.C. State offers a fulltime MBA program, which starts in the fall and lasts 21 months. Its classes are held five days a week, and it serves 40 to 50 students. “The fulltime program is our most competitive, and with its STEM designation, it is popular among our international students,” Dixon says. “We had an application increase over 300% among international students between fall of 2021 and 2022.”

According to, an online resource for information on MBA programs nationwide, the average student pursuing an MBA degree is a working professional, approximately 36 years old. Most students are women and have at least 11 years of business experience. From 2016 to 2017, most of the students entered A&T’s MBA program as soon as they completed their undergraduate degree. Today more people are enrolling with work experience. “We have an experienced faculty and align with business executives who bring a wealth of industry knowledge and experience to our classrooms and help students leverage their careers,” Gladney says.

Most MBA students at Queens University in Charlotte are working professionals focused on career advancement, says Richard Mathieu, dean of Queen’s McColl School of Business. It offers a flexible MBA program, which allows students to complete their degree online or create a combination of on-campus and online courses. “This program transcends the traditional online education model and provides a transformational and rewarding experience through a collaborative and personalized approach,” he says. “We are experimenting with a residency program for both current students and alumni who will serve as guest lecturers and mentors.”

Queens’ Executive Leadership Institute’s customized programs are tailored to executives’ specific business. “We also work with C-suite leaders in organizations to develop a learning program for their leaders,” Mathieu says. “And we customize that, too.”

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