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Responding to the workforce needs of employers along I-77

We have all heard about the skills gap and challenges industry faces in finding skilled workers to fill jobs in a highly-automated and rapidly-changing global economy. To remain competitive, businesses must now become more deliberate in how they manage their talent supply chain.

Strategic partnerships between education and industry are more critical than ever. The need to act collectively to more closely align the education-to-work continuum has increased as our state and national economies creep closer and closer to full employment.

To be more responsive in the war for talent, Surry Community College (SCC) and its partner institutions in Surry and Yadkin counties are rolling out new innovative strategies that seek to better align workforce programs to the needs of area employers, close leaks in the talent pipeline, and thus become more responsive to the employment needs of businesses in their service area.   

The effort started several years ago, when SCC and Surry County Schools began a joint effort to purposely connect STEM and career and technical education programs offered in the district’s middle and high schools to occupational and technical programs available at the college. The partners hold STEM Camps in the summer to bridge learning and experiences, and offer STEMersion Experiences for teachers so they can see first hand how the application of math, science, English and other core subjects are applied in the workplace.

Under the collective leadership of David Shockley, President of SCC, and Travis Reeves, Superintendent for Surry County Schools, a new approach was taken this past year to help reduce the cost and time to completion for students to become college and work ready. The Surry County Career Academy was created to replicate the early college model, which allows high school students to earn their high school diploma and an Associate Degree over a four- to five-year span, through an innovative high school framework that focuses on the workforce needs of local businesses.

The Academy was designed to be more responsive to area businesses’ employment concerns by building pathways in targeted business sectors that add an internship component to the educational requirements needed for graduation. Using the middle school STEM career exploration programs, career coaches would identify students with self-expressed interest in a particular career pathway and help those interested complete up to four high school courses prior to entering the Academy. This accelerated path would provide the additional time for students to complete most graduation requirements and enroll in SCC in their junior and senior years. These students take college classes part of the day, work up to 20 hours a week as an intern, and complete their third and fourth level math and English courses through a virtual platform.

With a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, the Career Academy started with 12 students, is expected to grow to 20 students in year two, and is expected to grow to 30 students in the third and final year of the grant. Each student was placed in an internship with a local business during the spring semester. Funds from Golden LEAF were used to hire a career coordinator for the Academy, to cover the initial stipends paid to interns for work, and to assist students with transportation to and from work. It is anticipated that participating businesses will contribute toward sustaining the internship component once it is fully operational.

Results from the initial year are impressive. Four of the 12 students recently graduated and signed employment contracts with their host companies. Two of those students have plans to continue studies at SCC. One graduate will be using the graphic design skills she learned at SCC in her job at Nester Hosiery. Another signed to continue working with Johnson Granite in the computer-aided design department. A third graduate was hired as a logistics technician by Leonard Building and Truck Accessories. And, a fourth signed to take a full-time job at Surry Communications.

Two of the four students hired by local businesses will continue their education at SCC while working. Four additional interns will begin four-year university programs in the UNC System. The remaining interns will return to the Academy next year to complete their senior year. In addition to the businesses, parents are showing strong interest in the program. After the initial year, more than 30 students have indicated interest in enrolling in the Academy for the 2018-19 year.

And there is more. SCC recently opened the G. Allen Mebane Industrial Training Center in Yadkinville. This expansion will offer citizens in Yadkin County the opportunity to get a college degree or meaningful credential without having to drive to another county. The Center will focus on the workforce demands of companies like Unifi, Lydall, and other manufacturing and logistics companies located along the I-77 and Highway 421 corridor.

This expanded footprint will allow SCC to offer training in the following areas to assist companies with their workforce needs: computer integrated machining, mechatronics, welding, electrical systems, electrical engineering, and truck driver training. Previously, individuals from Yadkin County that were interested were seeking employment and needed training in these fields had to drive thirty minutes one way from Yadkinville to SCC’s main campus in Dobson. In addition, the Yadkin County Commissioners have also provided funding to Surry CC to establish the Yadkin Guarantee, which provides students graduating from Yadkin County high schools free tuition to attend Surry CC programs at the Yadkinville campus.

The stage is set so that the innovative approach taken by SCC and Surry County Schools on the northern end of SCC’s service area can now be replicated in Yadkin County thanks to support from the Yadkin County Commissioners, Connect NC Bond funds, and grants from Golden LEAF, the Mebane Foundation, the Appalachian Regional Commission, Duke Energy, and the Cannon Foundation.

This innovative approach to better align the education-to-work continuum should provide benefits for all parties involved. Reducing the costs of attending college and the time to completion are attractive value propositions for students. A more responsive training system should also produce benefits to area businesses by having a larger pool of highly qualified workers available to help grow business activity in the area, and reduce the cost of hiring and retaining workers.

Mark Sorrells

Mark Sorrells is the senior vice president for academic and student services for Fayetteville Technical Community College.