Sunday, July 14, 2024

Point taken: NCEast works to retain, train Down East students

Vann Rogerson

The NC East Alliance economic development agency in Greenville has come up with a plan to keep youngsters in eastern North Carolina and working in local industry. They are enlisting teachers.

The stakes are high for the future of the region from Virginia south to Jacksonville. The General Assembly and private funders, notably the BelleJAR Foundation, are providing serious money. If it works, it will be tempting for other rural areas losing population to replicate it.

The idea is to train hundreds and maybe eventually thousands of teachers in two- and three-day workshops about career opportunities in the region. So, for example, it trains teachers about jobs in the health sciences by walking them through the ECU Health complex in Greenville. It takes teachers through the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center East in Havelock. Then it helps the teachers design what they have seen into their lessons.

Todd Edwards

“For us, traditional economic development in rural eastern North Carolina was no longer effective,” says Todd Edwards, a Farmville general contractor who chairs the NC East group. “We were experiencing population loss in about two-thirds of our counties ­— or maybe a little more than two-thirds of our counties. Just that talent bleed.”

NC East, through its STEM East program, was helping schools with science and math, but that didn’t stop population losses. “We were training the workforce for other places. They were getting trained up and seeking opportunities elsewhere,” says Edwards.

And that was because many young people in the region had no idea what career options were available within a 15- or 30-minute drive. Their parents didn’t know. Crucially, many of their teachers didn’t.

“We have major pharmaceutical manufacturers here,” says Edwards. “We have marine systems—we have, I think, 60-something boat manufacturers in the region. We’re the epicenter in North Carolina down here of smart ag. And I could keep going. We’ve got all sorts of advanced manufacturing, but as these students and the general populace drive by these buildings daily, weekly, monthly, they have no idea what’s going on inside.”

So NC East created the new initiative, called Industry Cluster Education, with $15 million from the legislature to help cover the next three years.

There are good jobs in eastern North Carolina if you know about them. Manufacturing pays well and, by my count, there are more than 1,000 manufacturing firms in the 29 counties with 60,000 jobs.

But it will be hard to sustain them in many counties — or attract new jobs — if folks keep leaving. The 29 counties have about
1.4 million residents. The region lost around 28,500 residents between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, which doesn’t sound bad, except that growth in a handful of coastal counties like Onslow and Currituck masked losses inland. Some 22 of the 29 counties lost population,
12 of them at double-digit rates.

This shows up in public school enrollment. At an NC East conference in January, senior regional economist Laura Ullrich of the Richmond Fed showed a slide of enrollment trends between 2000 and 2019.

Six school districts showed gains, like Onslow and Pitt, home to ECU. The rest had losses, five by more than 40%.

Folks have been leaving and taking their kids. This gives a lot of urgency to NC East’s project, to give parents hope for their children.

Last summer there were three pilot workshops. The health sciences one was a good example. It  started at Pitt Community College with 22 teachers from throughout the region, and it was built around a scenario. “You just got bit by a shark. Let’s talk about what it takes to stabilize you,” says Bruce Middleton, executive director of the STEM East program. It was an immersion into the variety of jobs that support ECU Health’s treatment of a shark victim. Like who maintains the medivac helicopter. Or who purchases medical supplies.

“We had teachers there, listening with both their ears,” says Middleton. “One ear may be going, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea that there were so many individual, separate career pathways.’”

“We need all the doctors and nurses,” says Middleton. “But there
are also HVAC technicians, there are plumbers, there are electricians, there are computer technicians.”

The second day, the teachers went around Pitt to hear what’s involved in getting ready for the jobs they had seen, some with short certificate programs and some with associate degrees. That training is available at the 16 community colleges in the region, close to everyone.

“Then we came to the classroom, and we finished with that conversation about how do you then sit down with your standards? What are you actually having to teach at your grade level? How do you then take everything you’ve heard [and] have students have the same picture of what you’ve seen?”

When the teachers go back to school, they have access to folks in the industry clusters who have agreed to make themselves available to teachers, who can come to the schools and have the students come to them. “We use the term ‘human library,’” says Middleton.

This summer there will be as many as nine workshops, expanding to other industry clusters in the region, including maybe biopharma — a hot area — with as many as 30 teachers each. This is a heavy lift, happening right now. They have to get teachers signed up from around the region, and that means having superintendents get the word out. The community colleges, key partners in this, are handling a lot of logistics and lining up industry partners for the workshops. A lot of stuff has to get done in the next three months.

There are about 12,000 public school teachers in the region. Next summer’s workshops may include 300 of them. NC East is staffing up to bring in folks to coordinate each industry cluster, and it will be able to handle increasing numbers of workshops over the next few years. What is hoped is that teachers who go through this program will share what they have learned with colleagues in their schools.

Plans also call for a different approach to career and job fairs, which have typically been highly localized.

“When we talk to industry,” says NC East CEO Vann Rogerson, a veteran economic developer who grew up on a Martin County farm, “they are siloed within the county that they’re domiciled. The school system, the colleges, the employers have job fairs and interact with each other in that county.

“But when you really talk to the companies, they’re interested in other school systems, and other communities in their labor shed surrounding their domicile county. Companies say, ‘I want to be visible past here.’”

Middleton has been an educator for 40 years, in the classroom and administration, and wishes he could have done what he is training now. “I was a high school biology teacher. And when I think about my own teaching, I go wow, if I really thought hard about taking biology class and using, as the context for teaching, using something like this relevant to kids.  Using health science or using agriculture, and at the same time connecting that to our regional healthcare and our agriculture systems.

“Not only would I have had much better luck with my kids understanding the importance of what I was teaching, because they could see it in action, but it would also be connected to a career in the region. Where they would go, ‘I’m learning this and that’s where I want to go to work someday.’”

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