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Western Piedmont Community College works in Burke County

Western Piedmont Community College sits right off of I-40 in Burke County. For those who have recently traveled to Asheville from the Triad or Triangle region of North Carolina, you may recall seeing the three exit signs for WPCC along the interstate.

WPCC resides in the Broughton district in Morganton, which is comprised of the college, Broughton Hospital, and the North Carolina School for the Deaf.

One of the first things visitors notice when they pull up to the campus is the size and beauty of the campus. Three hundred acres of hills, trees, and a pond offer a show-stopping view as you arrive on campus. On a recent fall day when I visited, you could see the mountains in the distance through the beautiful fall colors popping from the trees across campus.

The college is assuredly rural while offering proximity to both Charlotte and Asheville. “With the growth in regional industries and the addition of new educational entities to the area, like the NC School for Science and Mathematics, WPCC has the potential to become part of a revolution in rural education,” President Michael Helmick said. “The forming of partnerships with other colleges, school systems, local industry, and other groups will be essential to ensuring that WPCC remains an educational destination of choice for our region.”

WPCC has already begun forming these partnerships. According to Helmick, the German-owned automotive company Continental looks to WPCC to provide management assistance for their apprenticeship programs and hires graduates to work in their Morganton plant. 

Helmick believes these partnerships are essential to the health of rural communities. “If rural communities in NC are to stay vibrant and grow,” he said, “it will be due, at least partially, to the work of the community colleges in developing partnerships that help spur and maintain this growth.” 

Core to these partnerships is the collaborative Work in Burke, which has brought together business and industry, the K-12 system, and WPCC to promote career opportunities in Burke County.

Work in Burke was formed to address talent needs in Burke County after the recession. As the economy recovered in 2012, the local community started discussing the talent pipeline, but it wasn’t until 2014 that a local business leader truly sounded the alarm over young talent leaving the area while jobs remained unfilled, according to Sara Chester, the project and communications director. 

The effort began with an emphasis on building relationships, conducting research, and truly understanding the needs of local students, families, and industries. Over the course of 2015 and 2016, the group surveyed Millennials, conducted focus groups across the county, and spent significant time with students.

While they were originally focused on manufacturing, the research process demonstrated the need to include all local industry. They also changed the name of the initiative after getting feedback from students, which led to the name Work in Burke. Chester credits Burke County Schools Superintendent Larry Putnam with stressing the need to gut check their findings with students.

One beneficial outcome of this process, Helmick said, is that WPCC and Burke County Schools are working closer together than they have in years.

One goal of Work in Burke is to bolster perceptions. They hope to achieve a 15 percent decrease in ratings of negative perceptions associated with jobs in the area. They also hope to see a 10 percent gain in Burke County Public School students pursuing postsecondary education.

To achieve these two goals, Work in Burke is undertaking a multi-faceted communications and marketing campaign. Key findings from this campaign include the need to include photos with what Chester dubs, “Real people in real situations in Burke County.”

These lessons extend to the videos, which showcase Burke County employees telling their stories.

One video is focused on meeting the information needs of local students.

The feedback from the effort to date has also led to Work in Burke emphasizing the lifestyle of the area.

Helmick believes Work in Burke is not just shifting perceptions among students, but is changing the environment for local industry. “In the past, businesses tended to look at local education as merely a supply source of workers,” Helmick said. “But Work in Burke has helped push businesses and local educational entities together to not only help everyone be aware of the opportunities for students, but also to help us develop relevant curriculum to meet the needs of local businesses.”

He added, “Prior to Work in Burke, local industry saw little reason to be involved with local students to educate them about their businesses. But, industries now see WPCC and Burke County Public Schools not only [as] a solution to their immediate need for workers, but for making their company successful in an increasingly competitive marketplace.”

For more on Work in Burke, spend some time with their presentation:

Work in Burke Deck by on Scribd

Helmick believes the campaign has produced a number of positive ripple effects for WPCC, including increasing knowledge of course offerings across the region and showcasing the possibilities for local industry to partner with the college.

Ultimately, both Helmick and Chester were optimistic about the future. Their belief in Work in Burke was clear. They illustrated multiple reasons for their positivity, including the overall impact of local and regional collaborative efforts, continued economic growth in the area, and the NC School of Science and Math (NCSSM) expansion to Burke County. 

As I walked out of the door, Helmick wanted to make sure that I knew he believes deeply that his region could become a model for rural education given NCSSM’s arrival, the efforts of Work in Burke and K-64 in Catawba County, the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Newton, new buildings at WPCC and Catawba Valley Community College, and the spirit of collaboration between all of the local community colleges.

His region, the region I grew up in, has taken blow after blow between globalization followed by the great recession. Yet if you spend an afternoon with the Work in Burke effort, you will walk away believing it might just work.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.