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Economic downturns send many North Carolina workers and small-business owners to the state’s community colleges, where training and programs prepare them for a strong rebound. The COVID-19 pandemic has been no different.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made for a tough year. In an attempt to slow its spread across North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper issued statewide stay-at-home orders in late March. The restrictions had many effects, from canceling family celebrations to stopping sporting events, including the always popular ACC and NCAA men’s basketball tournaments.
Cooper’s orders didn’t spare the state’s economy or workers. Many businesses began operating remotely. Others simply closed. In April, North Carolina’s unemployment rate surged to
12.5%, compared with 3.6% one year earlier, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. Buncombe County saw a similar trend. Its April unemployment rate was 17.7%, up from 2.7% in April 2019. Buncombe’s unemployment rate is improving, falling to 7.5% in August. While that is good news, it isn’t pointing toward a return to prepandemic life for many of its residents. Instead, they’re preparing for new careers, says Deborah Wright, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s vice president of continuing education and economic and workforce development. Besides sharing the finer points of videoconference calls and online instruction, training for high-demand career fields, such as certified nursing assistants, HVAC and construction, is expanding at A-B Tech. “We have been steering people toward our Small Business Center,” she says. “Now is a great opportunity to start a new business.”
Economic downturns historically coincide with enrollment upturns at North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. Workers turn to these institutions for training and certifications that qualify them for better jobs that are more resilient to economic upheaval. Business owners also find help, adapting their operations to changing times. The colleges are meeting this increased demand, in part, with an infusion of funding.
The State Board of Community Colleges recently directed $15 million from the governor’s Emergency Education Fund toward financial aid and scholarships for North Carolinians seeking short-term workforce training in high-demand sectors. Community-college system spokeswoman Jane Stancill says those include aircraft maintenance, construction, criminal justice, emergency medical services, health care, manufacturing and information technology. In addition, Rocky Mount-based Golden LEAF Foundation, which funds economic-development projects with the state’s share of the national tobacco settlement, provided $500,000 for community-college scholarships for rural students. “We see this investment as critical to the success of our rural communities,” foundation CEO and President Scott T. Hamilton said in a news release.
Few workforce-development programs are as robust as the community-college system’s Small Business Centers. A statewide network of 60, they focus on entrepreneurship, small businesses and economic development. They offer free confidential one-on-one counseling for business owners, who also can enroll in SBC seminars and classes, most at no cost.
Local service providers, retail outlets and mom-and-pop restaurants have been counted among 2020’s most vulnerable businesses. So, the N.C. General Assembly allocated about $3 million to SBCs — $51,724 per center — for additional counseling in May. That money has been put to good use at Pitt Community College in Winterville, where 33 retailers and restaurants had been helped by the end of September. “We know how important small-business owners are in our community,” Pitt SBC Director Jim Ensor says. “They create jobs and opportunities for our local residents, and it’s important they stay afloat.” He and two counselors work morning to night, helping business owners apply for federal funding and connect with private-sector mentors, who’ve reworked business models, for example, to incorporate e-commerce. That is vital to business survival in an increasingly touchless economy.
Entrepreneurs received help getting their businesses off the ground from Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem. It spearheaded Launch Challenge, which has helped more than 50 startups, thanks to a partnership with the L. David Mounts Foundation. “Through the Launch Challenge, we literally take small startups from idea to launch,” says Jennifer Coulombe, Forsyth Tech’s associate vice president for business partnerships and process improvement. The program, which is in its final year, had education and mentorship components and offered intensive business coaching. “It has been exciting to see the small businesses come to fruition,” she says. “You literally can drive through town and see new signs on their doors.”
Growing demand from small businesses hasn’t stifled community colleges’ traditional roles of industry partnerships and workforce development. Guilford Technical Community College, for example, is expanding its role in the aviation industry. Its aviation program is the largest in North Carolina and among the East Coast’s top three. Its newest training center — Caesar Cone II Aviation Building, home to the college’s aviation electronics program — sits on 20 acres at Piedmont Triad International Airport next to Greensboro-based Honda Aircraft, which has hired the college’s graduates.
GTCC teaches a robust aviation systems technology curriculum, too. “The program is FAA-certified, and students who complete it can become FAA-certified aviation technicians,” says GTCC President Anthony Clarke. “We have added a new cohort of 29 students to that program, and we continue to grow in the aviation sector.”
Wake Technical Community College is moving ground to expand its offerings. It recently purchased 106 acres in Wendell, where it will build Eastern Wake 4.0, its seventh campus. Funded by a $349 million bond approved by Wake County voters in 2018, its programs will train workers in cutting-edge information and communication technology such as 5G, big data and cloud computing, says college President Scott Ralls. Wake Tech’s advanced electronics and biopharmaceutical manufacturing programs will be there, too. “The new facility is close to East Wake High School and Knightdale High School, and that will help build dual enrollment opportunities with Wake County Public Schools,” he says.
Workforce development starts early at Pitt Community College in Winterville. Steven Mathews, Pitt’s dean of construction and industrial technology, says Technical Academy, a partnership with the county school system, allows high school students to train on the college’s state-of-the-art equipment each morning, learning a trade before their graduation.
Each year, Technical Academy accepts 40 students who study computer-integrated machining, air conditioning, heating and refrigeration, electrical systems and industrial systems. Participants complete valuable apprenticeships and earn an associate degree. “Most of them have gone straight into jobs, and others have chosen to enroll in a four-year university,” Mathews says. Technical Academy plans to add architecture to its curriculum, which he predicts will open its door to more students.
Fayetteville Technical Community College’s mission includes helping some of nearby Fort Bragg’s 57,000 soldiers prepare for the civilian workforce. The college’s Transition Tech provides training, certificates and credentials in a variety of fields, including IT, engineering, applied technology and health care, in addition to resume assistance and interview preparation.
One of Fayetteville Tech’s fastest-growing niches is health care education, says Mark Sorrells, senior vice president for academic and student services. That includes its school of nursing. “We typically have from 185 to 200 nursing students in our program, but over the next two or three years, we hope to grow it to 280.” The expanded program will be in space that was dedicated to the college’s Early Childhood Education Center, which closed in May, partly because of the pandemic.
Online communication, learning and commerce surged as people navigated stay-at-home orders, and completing those tasks safely and securely is becoming more important daily. “Prior to COVID-19, North Carolina was ranked as one of the top five cybersecurity employers in the nation, with over 19,000 jobs available,” Sorrell says. “But since the pandemic started, cyberattacks have escalated, and we anticipate a growing need for cybersecurity experts as our economy continues to migrate to virtual applications and teleworking.” The recently launched Carolina Cyber Network, a consortium of community colleges, including Fayetteville Tech, is supplying workers with the needed skills and professionalism that is required to handle sensitive personal data.
Community-based programs are key to students’ success at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. Its Workplace Learning Program, for example, placed more than 700 students
from 42 different study programs with 365 different employers in 2019. Director Ed Injaychock says they represented many fields, including IT, automotive technicians and biomedical equipment technology.
CPCC’s Computer Technology Institute uses classroom time, hands-on training and structured apprenticeships to prepare students for IT-consulting careers. “This is a great opportunity for people who are interested in getting into technology and becoming developers and consultants,” says Karla Shields, the institute’s executive director. “Every company I talk to needs that type of talent.”
Sheena Ashley, director of CPCC’s career development program, helps students access the college’s training programs. Serving about 150 students annually, the program secures paid internships and scholarships for short-term workforce training, along with other forms of support such as bus passes and assistance purchasing vehicle fuel or work uniforms. The students who need this extra help come from different walks of life and pursue a variety of careers. “What links them together is the high level of support our team provides to enable them to be successful,” she says.
George Henderson, CPCC’s associate vice president of applied programs, says workforce-development initiatives fulfill the colleges’ traditional mission: connecting the local business community’s needs to students’ professional goals. And despite the challenges inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic, these efforts have neither slowed nor stopped.
As a system, we have been able to pivot and address economic development across the state, especially when businesses and industries come to us and ask us for help. These COVID challenges have positioned us to think more strategically about how we can put our programs into play quickly, engage the right people at the right time, provide our citizens what they need, and then move on to the next goal.”
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.