By George Willoughby Roxboro Courier Times

The Kirby Theater played host to this year’s Kerr Tar Regional Council of Governments economic development summit titled Vision 2022: Reimagining Tomorrow’s Workforce Today all day last Thursday.

In the summit’s afternoon panel, local and regional educators discussed how Person County Schools and Piedmont Community College are preparing a talent pipeline.

The panelists were PCC President Dr. Pamela Senegal; Person County Schools’ Executive Director of Career and Technical Education (CTE) and College Career Promise Judy Bradsher; Person Memorial Hospital CEO David Ziolkowski; and Research Triangle Foundation Vice President of Strategic Engagement and N.C. State Board of Community Colleges board member Ray Trapp.

Bradsher and Senegal outlined PCS and PCC’s 6-14 Workforce Pipeline Plan.

Under that plan, students will begin taking career exploration classes in sixth grade that begin to focus further as students progress. 

With extra funding provided by Person County Economic Development, Bradsher said the school system was able to add another CTE teacher at the middle school level and fully outfit a classroom.

At PCC, Senegal said the college was able to hire a work-based learning coordinator.

“One of the things we’ve done at PCC is in every program of study – every degree we offer, every continuing education credential that’s more than 96 hours – there’s a work-based learning component in it,” Senegal said. “There’s an internship.”

Senegal said the school has updated its programs over two years and has tripled the amount of programs with internships.

At the community college level, Senegal said students enter into one of five pathways that align with the county’s five economic priorities – advanced manufacturing, technology, entrepreneurship, agriculture and the trades.

Ziolkowski said his industry is seeing increased competition for talent and Person Memorial has addressed that by moving “further upstream” or toward younger students.

“When I first arrived, it was ‘how can we identify the best and the brightest new graduates’ and we really focused on them exiting school,” Ziolkowski said.

Over time, the focus has become getting current students into the hospital working rotations and receiving mentoring from hospital staff.

“Now we’ve moved so far upstream that we’re offering scholarships for students that haven’t even taken their first class at PCC,” Ziolkowski said. 

Ziolkowski said the hospital has also collaborated with PCC on staff development and has an ultimate goal of designing programs together.

“We both are winning with this collaboration and partnership,” Ziolkowski said. “I think this progression is really a great opportunity for students and I would encourage my kids when the time is right to do it. You can leave high school and have your education paid for and have a job waiting for you which, in nursing, is going to make $60-70,000 with opportunities to grow professionally – it’s a great opportunity.”

Senegal said the college has financial aid and the Pacer Promise program to fund students’ work at the school.

“We have the resources, so our challenge is getting the word out to parents and helping them understand that there are alternate pathways to having a great life and one of those goes through the community college,” Senegal said. 

Trapp said community colleges still face a diversity problem as enrollment numbers for women and minorities remain low.

“That’s something that we still struggle to make up for on a higher-education level – both four-year and two-year institutions,” Trapp said. “There’s tremendous opportunity for growth in that vein. … One of the reasons we’re having these amazing economic development announcements across the state is because the state’s diversity. It’s because of the great community college system and the great four-year institutions. Making sure that representation on the two-year and the four-year level looks like the community is a critical opportunity for us.”

Trapp said collaborations between school systems and community colleges are demystifying community college.

Enrollment in hybrid programs that allow high school students to receive associates’ degrees is up statewide and approximately two-thirds of those students then went on to community college or a four-year college.

“That changes the trajectory for so many people – it’s a generational change,” Trapp said. 

The collaborations also level the playing field between urban and rural North Carolina, Trapp said.

One misconception that is regularly repeated is that community college is a pathway to a factory, Trapp said, but he has heard from Research Triangle CEOs that have said they dream of recruiting from community colleges.

Senegal said factories on the whole have changed.

“If you have not been to one of our local advanced manufacturing facilities – it doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago,” Senegal said. “They have three shifts they run at Polywood. Their third shift is largely run with robotics and a low number of staffers. The skill set that’s required in advanced manufacturing companies today is at a higher level than it was 50 years ago. I’m proud that we’re preparing people to go work in advanced manufacturing facilities because those are great opportunities. Those are great jobs. … Even the agriculture program that we’re doing – we’re helping students understand how to use data and how to use technology to produce higher yields. There’s not one field that we offer that technology is not a current that runs through it so we can prepare people for great jobs. We’re preparing people to have great lives.”

Senegal said the college is regularly eliminating programs that result in low pay and steering resources to programs that will provide students with a living wage.

Bradsher said she is still hearing some students say they want to leave Roxboro to get a good job, but said she is hearing an increasing number of students say they want to remain here.

“We do have a lot of students who want to stay here and they want to know about the industries here and what they offer because if we offer what they’re seeking, we’ve got them,” Bradsher said.

Trapp said some companies in RTP are offering work flexibility and were ahead of the curve and are reaping the benefits and, as a result, other companies are trying to catch up.

Asked what employers can do to support the state’s community colleges, Senegal said be sure that education requirements are relevant.

“There are far too many positions that we find that require a baccalaureate degree and the skill set that responds to it does not correspond to actually needing that degree,” Senegal said. “We need to see associates’ degrees more requested and we need employers to advocate on our behalf. When we advocate, it seems like it is self serving, but to say that we need to update our facilities to reflect the modernity of what we’re preparing students for and our facilities are 40 or 50 years behind – we need your help to help the people in power steer those budget dollars so we’re aligned in what we can offer.”

Bradsher said employers and the general public can share opportunities in CTE with the students they know.

Trapp said employers should continue to build mutually beneficial relationships with community colleges.

Ziolkowski said educators and employers need to listen and learn what students are looking for and make adjustments and build an internal talent pipeline.

Senegal also said ongoing partnerships like the hospital-funded position at PCC are beneficial.

“You let us know how you want to work with us and we will be as creative as we need to be on behalf of our students,” Senegal said.

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