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Here’s how one community college is serving four rural counties

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Vance-Granville Community College (VGCC) is responsible for serving students, training prospective workers, and meeting community needs in Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties.

According to an economic impact report, Vance-Granville supports one out of every 30 jobs in the counties it serves and has an annual economic impact of $129.5 million.

The college’s economic impact is connected directly to one of its most important strategic objectives: training skilled workers to meet workforce needs for the communities they serve.

Ken Wilson is a project manager for Vance-Granville’s TechHire program – a program that seeks to train workers in IT and advanced manufacturing.

“We are the trainer in the region. There’s nobody else who has the breadth and depth that we do in a lot of the trades. So we train from mechatronics, to welding, to HVAC, electrical, CDL,” he said. “We’re the ones that are supplying a lot of these workers.”

President Dr. Rachel Desmarais said advanced manufacturing is where a lot of movement is seen in her service area, particularly in Granville. But the college also must work with the K-12 districts, other community organizations, and even families to convince prospective students to pursue opportunities in the field.

Students working at Vance-Granville Community College. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Desmarais noted that advanced manufacturing is already a big driver for the economies of her counties — and that the industry’s need for workforce will likely only continue to grow.

This presents opportunity for the college — but also a challenge, according to Desmarais.

“There is very little value placed on the trades anymore in public schools,” she said. “So it’s all about four-year (universities). And that’s what’s incentivized to be talked about. That’s what parents want for their children.”

She noted that people have a memory of how trades used to be: dark and dirty workplaces with back-breaking labor.

“They don’t want that for their kid. They want the white collar jobs, not the blue collar jobs,” continued Desmarais. “And so we’re having to go against an idea. We have all of these baby boomer industrial maintenance folks retiring. Who’s going to replace them?.”

Students working at Vance-Granville Community College. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Wilson’s program can help with that, and he said that post-COVID, the college has had an easier time getting businesses to sign up to partner with the college.

“After their three-year hiatus with COVID … whatever we can come up with, they’re willing to say, ‘Ok, let me think about it.’ And they’ll get back to us,” he said. “Usually, they support all the initiatives that we come up with in terms of new training ideas … and they’ve been very willing to give their time in ways that they hadn’t in prior years. And I think that’s because everybody is feeling sort of the pain.”

The industry partnerships will be critical, but it is also essential that Vance-Granville recruits and retains trained faculty and staff. 

And, as Desmarais pointed out, K-12 districts, churches, community organizations, and families must collaborate to create awareness of the good jobs available in the trades.

Who does the college serve?

The college’s service area extends across four counties. In order to serve all of the communities within their service area, the college must maintain a strong connection with community partners and leaders. They also must be prepared to serve the unique needs of each of the communities. 

Three of the four counties served by the college have either held steady or had a slight population decline in recent years. Franklin has seen significant growth — in part because the town of Wake Forest is partially in Franklin, as is the rapidly growing town of Youngsville.

Even the counties themselves contain differences.

“Granville and Franklin are are really two counties in one,” Desmarais pointed out during a recent conversation with EdNC. “They’re heavily divided (between) their southern regions, which are closer to Durham and Raleigh, and their northern regions, which look a lot more like the other two counties (we serve) in terms of poverty rates.”

On the other hand, Warren and Vance counties are both tier one counties.

As Desmarais has worked with her team to develop a long-term strategy for the college, she has drawn upon her own experiences. She began her community college career at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem — and spent 17 years working at the college full-time. Forsyth Tech serves urban Forsyth County and rural Stokes County. Desmarais was the first faculty member at the college to offer an in-person class for credit in Stokes County.

She brought this experience to the college, but she also understood that VGCC was different because it didn’t have the resources of Forsyth County to draw upon. For example, Desmarais shared that Forsyth County paid a local supplement to support faculty pay for all instructors even if they taught in Stokes County.

“When I got to Vance-Granville, that wasn’t happening,” noted Desmarias. “The (communities) that are growing are trying to hold their own. And the other ones we’re trying to keep from drowning.”

The counties with declining or stagnant population bases offer challenges when it comes to having a base to support economic development recruitment.

“If you get all those folks with these large numbers of jobs, we can’t support it. We don’t have the right people,” Desmarais said. “And so until we do have the people, and we may one day, we have to build another way. And we need to support the businesses to grow what we do have.”

Students working at Vance-Granville Community College. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Looking ahead — and thinking differently

One of the things Vance-Granville needs to support businesses and students alike is an expansion of some of its key programs. The school wants to build an advanced manufacturing facility on their main campus. They also want want to build a transportation hub in Warren County, and they intend to expand their biotechnology offerings in Franklin County.

Desmarais said the school would need $15 to $20 million to make this happen, but that isn’t money the school just has sitting on the table. It’s likely going to take the financial assistance of lawmakers in Raleigh.

“We need someone to invest in us … We’re missing out. And I’m not gonna sit back and blame that on any person,” she said.” I’m gonna get out there and start shaking hands and doing what we need to do.”

And it isn’t just about the money, Desmarais noted, because the college would still need to have access to their own workforce to recruit from, provide opportunities for faculty and staff to grow in order to retain them, and additional resources to execute the programs at the highest level possible.

All of this might require a different approach for community college funding from the state and the system as a whole, according to Desmarais.

“It is time for us to be incentivized to work together,” Desmarais said. “We need to think about instructional services agreements and sharing of FTE. Does it have to be a split of 100%? Or could it be a split of 125 or 150%?”

Sharing resources and bolstering collaboration is part of the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) strategic plan, but rural colleges must have a sense of urgency.

Desmarais went on to point out beyond sharing FTE, they should consider every possible approach to incentivize the sharing of resources. 

One question she raised is, does a model exist that would allow for resources to be distributed in a manner that works for rural colleges, given that everything looks different for rural colleges? Transportation, child care, internships, work-based learning, and other aspects can look very different even amongst similar sized institutions.

Regardless of the approaches adopted by the system moving forward, Desmarais had words of wisdom for decision-makers:

“Don’t assume one size fits all, because even amongst the rural, we’re ultimately different. One community might have transportation versus one community that doesn’t. One community might have higher opioid usage versus another community that may not have as significant of a problem. Those are all big differences — and we’re gonna need some different things.”

Dr. Rachel Desmarais, president of Vance-Granville Community College
Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.


EdNC staff reporting relies on staff, interns, and columnists.