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At Mitchell Community College, a 170-year history is driving economic impact

To understand Mitchell Community College’s economic impact in its community, its leaders say you first have to understand their history.

The college was originally founded as Mitchell College in 1852 as a private women’s college. The legend, according to President Tim Brewer, is that the college only survived the Civil War because they allowed Union soldiers to graze their horses on the lawn.

Mitchell Community College was founded as a private women’s college in 1852. Anna Pogarcic/EducationNC
Mitchell Community College was founded before the Civil War as a private women’s college. Anna Pogarcic/EducationNC
A view of one of Mitchell Community College’s historic buildings. This is the grass legend says the soldiers were able to use. Anna Pogarcic/EducationNC

Mitchell didn’t become the community college it’s known as today until the 1970s, but Brewer says they’ve prioritized providing for the community during their entire history.

“What we’ve done since 1973 is transition from that history and heritage into a strong economic development engine,” Brewer said.

Around the same time that this transition was happening at the college, Brewer said the surrounding community was experiencing similar disruptions as manufacturing — that used to be the bedrock of economic mobility — was disappearing.

“We naturally inherited the responsibility of working hard and retraining the workforce,” he said.

This was a huge shift for a college that previously mainly offered a college transfer curriculum for women.

“We had no facilities,” Carol Johnson, vice president for workforce development, said. “We started from zero, where other (community colleges) as they built, their focus was on technical and CTE.”

According to an economic impact report from Lightcast, formerly known as Emsi Burning Glass, Mitchell added $128 million to the local economy in Iredell County during the 2019-20 fiscal year.

“Expressed in terms of jobs, Mitchell’s impact supported 2,225 jobs,” the report found. “For perspective, the activities of Mitchell and its students support one out of every 48 jobs in Iredell County.”

One of the main ways Mitchell supports these jobs is through its various workforce development programs. Deb Lazenby, the college’s director of customized training & business services, explained that the college offers customized training to many of the businesses that have moved into Iredell County in recent years.

“The beauty of customized training is it really is customized,” she said. “So what I do is, I work with their training development coordinator, their manager, and we determine what training it is that they need for their current employees.”

One of Mitchell’s biggest partners is NGK Ceramics USA Inc., which supplies automobile and heavy-duty diesel manufacturers with ceramic engine parts. The company opened United States operations in 1988 and has a location in Mooresville.

The company has since expanded in Iredell County 19 times and is now the county’s second largest manufacturing employer with over 700 employees.

NGK employees receive a variety of training from Mitchell Community College. Photo courtesy of Iredell County Economic Development Cooperation.

Mitchell Community College has provided customized training to over 919 NGK employees and covered a variety of areas, from soft skills like leadership to technical training. The college worked with 15 different companies just last year.

Lazenby said she is encouraged by local companies wanting to continue training the employees they currently have.

“The year before last, we trained about 700 employees. Last year was well over 1,000, almost 1,050,” she said. “I’ve got several meetings this week with companies that want training for their current employees because they’ve realized the value of that current employee, and how they want to continue to upskill them.”

Even with workforce development, she said the college’s 160 years of history is integral. She said the college has a reputation in the community that attracts businesses and other organizations to collaborate.

Brewer recognizes that the college has to remain versatile based on what the local economy needs, and workforce development is one of the main ways they can do that.

“We are in the business of helping people to become gainfully employed,” Brewer said.

Anna Pogarcic

Anna Pogarcic is a Reporting and Engagement Fellow for EducationNC.