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Our visit to Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute: Fast cars, livermush, and MacGyver

According to family lore, my first words were “big truck.”

I was born in Burke County, but I grew up in Caldwell County. Our region was the cradle of the furniture industry and one of the primary metropolitan regions where furniture and textiles reigned supreme. As a result, I grew up seeing “big trucks” — or transfer trucks if you prefer — frequently as a child.

And on a warm late August day, it all came full circle as we were able to see the trucking program for Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in action.

CCC&TI President Mark Poarch, along with lead trucking instructor Roger Chester, walked our group through the importance of instructional offerings around trucking to CCC&TI and the local economy.

Roger noted, “Sometimes I think the perception is that trucking is a dying industry, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are facing severe shortages of drivers in the coming years.”

John Matthews, a representative from local company MDI, which services restaurant groups across 11 states and is one of the largest private employers, was present to attest to the need. Matthews told us, “I have hired 65 folks in the last three months, and I need 25 more. If I didn’t have this school right here in my backyard, we’d be hurting.”

I must admit I wasn’t sure of the future of trucking when I was a kid. Numerous members of my family drove for either local freight companies or local furniture factories. They all made good money in their estimation, but I was also coming of age as furniture and textile companies began to layoff workers in the first decade of the 21st century.

According to Roger, however, CCC&TI is turning out student after student who are finding sustainable employment. Roger told us their average graduate will make in excess of $50,000 in annual salary for their first job.

Spending time in my hometown

Our visit began at Clarence’s Friendly Lunch. My colleague Bryan and I were joined by Dr. Poarch for a classic breakfast of eggs, livermush, and hashbrowns.

Dr. Poarch became President of CCC&TI just over two years ago after long-time President Ken Boham retired.

From its founding in 1964 up to 2016, Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute only had three presidents serving for 21, 10, and 21 years. The current president, Dr. Mark Poarch, spent 10 years at Caldwell as a vice president prior to taking over in 2016.

Dr. Poarch grew up in Caldwell County, played college baseball at Western Carolina University, and intended to assist with the launch of the baseball program at Brevard. He started a job at Brevard before meeting his wife who was a proponent of staying local, which led him to Catawba Valley Community College.

Ultimately, Dr. Poarch would proceed in his career from Catawba Valley Community College to CCC&TI where he became a vice president. Dr. Poarch credits President Boham with providing him a wide array of leadership development opportunities over the ensuing years, which allowed him to step in as president.

Over breakfast, we discussed a number of significant issues facing the community college system and the institution ranging from the funding formula of state appropriations to declining enrollment at many institutions, which he credited to a good economy that reduces interest in certifications and upskilling, to faculty recruitment and retention.

Despite the challenges, Dr. Poarch is optimistic about the future of community colleges broadly and CCC&TI specifically. He told us, “We have seen a bit of a bounce back in enrollment.”

He discussed new relationships they are building with Appalachian State University and local school districts. He shared a goal of “becoming the answer for more students in Caldwell and Watauga County, from those who wish to go to a four-year to those who ran into difficulty at a four-year and wish to return to those who are seeking to move into the workforce in a trade.”

Takeaways from CCC&TI

Our visit took us from transfer trucks to sonography and radiography to visiting the continuing education center where the institution works closely with local employers. Throughout the conversation, several common themes emerged.

Takeaway one: Faculty recruitment and retention benefits from ties to the institution

We had the opportunity to visit both the radiography and ophthalmology departments at the start of our visit.

The ophthalmology department at CCC&TI was the first to launch in the North Carolina Community College system 15 years ago. Their present instructor was a member of the second class.

Meet Faith Race.

Faith and other colleagues shared that they compete with local industry to hire faculty, which means faculty members may even be making less in salary in order to teach. Faith and other faculty members shared that attending CCC&TI as students drew them back to the college to give back.

Takeaway two: Community colleges are drivers of economic development

Deborah Murray, the Executive Director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission, joined us for our tour. Murray would call CCC&TI “MacGyver Ed” for their “responsiveness, flexibility, and creativity.” Murry noted CCC&TI has created numerous institutes as custom training centers — even during the recruitment phase for businesses so the Economic Development Commission can point to the existence of the institute as a reason for coming to Caldwell County.

Chuck Kaylor of the John M. Belk Endowment listening to Deborah Murray of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission. Photo credit: Edward Terry, CCC&TI.

Murray was dealing with sobering news at the beginning of the meeting as Heritage Home Group, a significant furniture manufacturer, announced a bankruptcy recently — and thus far they have not found a buyer. Heritage Home Group’s bankruptcy could impact over 700 employees.

Even with the news of the bankruptcy and potential layoffs, Murray told us she is excited about the future of Caldwell County because of a strong furniture sector — Heritage not withstanding — and a growing pharmaceutical presence. Murray and Dr. Poarch both stated that the key for moving forward for most businesses is recruitment and retention due to a low unemployment rate. This is a significant change for Caldwell County, which faced an unemployment rate of 17 percent in January 2010 during the peak of the Great Recession.

Dr. Poarch also led us through a tour of the health sciences program, which drove their point home regarding the importance of the health industry to the region.

CCC&TI student Holly Moose spoke to the importance of CCC&TI’s health programs for her life:

Takeaway three: Budgets loom large

As we have traveled the state, the leadership of many community colleges have pointed to a provision from the North Carolina budget which is dubbed management flexibility as a challenge. During the Great Recession, the state of North Carolina tweaked the funding formula for the colleges to require them to return a portion of their funds back to the state.

Dr. Poarch says that over the last ten years CCC&TI has had to do without $10,000,000 in appropriations due to management flexibility, even as the college has significant equipment and facility expenses which accumulate each year. Poarch made the point that the jobs of tomorrow are expensive ones to teach when you factor in faculty recruitment and retention and equipment upgrades, yet he is still making do with less funding due to the old provision.

When you look at these themes together, alongside the others we are hearing during our tour of the state (which you can find on Twitter), you can begin to see the common opportunities and challenges ahead for each of the member institutions and the system office.

We are curious to know what you have seen in your own area. Text AWAKE58 to 73224 to share!

Bonus: We had a chance to experience student life

I was also able to chase my dream of being in a “big truck” when instructor Harold Curtis took MC Belk Pilon and Jennifer Bihn from the John M. Belk Endowment and I out in one of their transfer trucks. See what a student experiences below:

We even hopped in a Dodge Charger on a Dino to simulate drag racing. MC Belk Pilon hopped in:

And then Bryan Noreen hopped in:

On a personal note, it is always great to return home.



Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.