Community colleges collaborate on program to teach new workers job skills

SPARKS FLY: A-B Tech offers a certification program in welding, a skill that is in high demand among WNC employers. Photo courtesy of A-B Tech

Companies looking to hire skilled workers in Western North Carolina don’t care where the workers come from, notes Emily Nicholson, executive director of the Land of Sky P20 Council, which fosters collaboration between employers and local colleges.

“They’re bringing the workforce in from everywhere,” she says. “To both employees and employers, the county lines that technical colleges traditionally cover are invisible.”

With that in mind, the P20 Council has partnered with A-B Tech and Blue Ridge Community College on Project Collaborate. The three-year program, funded with a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, helps provide students with training in high-demand fields. The goal is for students to have the skills needed to earn a sustainable wage.

Each school received about $550,000, which they are using for tuition, supplies, equipment, faculty pay and more. The Land of Sky P20 Council is using the remaining money on administrative costs and to hire a person to oversee the grant.

“This is the biggest grant that has been co-awarded to both of our community colleges in the Land of Sky region,” Nicholson notes. “The colleges realize the importance of collaborating on things like this because it does make them more competitive in the lens of funders like DOL. Whether it’s public or private funds, we are definitely seeing a path where regionalism is prioritized as opposed to institutions, and that’s a big deal.”

A-B Tech’s traditional service area includes Buncombe and Madison counties while Blue Ridge serves Henderson and Transylvania counties. “But the world just doesn’t operate that way anymore,” says Scott Queen, BRCC’s vice president of economic and workforce development.

The grant was approved in 2022, but funds didn’t become available until last summer due to the grinding gears of the federal government. A-B Tech began enrolling students in certificate programs this semester, with plans to serve about 100 eventually. Blue Ridge has seen about 30 students enroll in its apprenticeship program, with plans to serve about 180 students over the three years.

“Our region is one of the most, if not the most, expensive places to live in North Carolina, but that doesn’t always mean that folks are obtaining jobs that pay those wages in order to afford to live here,” Nicholson says. “So part of our goal is to not just listen to employers about what their needs are for new employees, but to really seek that out with our training providers, in this case, the community colleges.”

Workers in high demand

A-B Tech decided to spend the grant money on nine of its curriculum certificate programs, which are short-term training options designed to help students get started in new careers quickly and that can typically be completed in two semesters. The programs include air conditioning, welding, robotic welding and mechatronics.

“That’s where jobs are,” explains Dana Moore, dean of engineering, transportation and technology. “That’s where the demand is. We’re having trouble with employers hiring people for these jobs [who] don’t really have any experience or any knowledge. This way, we’re able to get them the skills they need. Like in welding, there’s different ways you weld different materials, so it’s critical that those students know how to do that.”

Most of the grant money will be used to update equipment for training, with the rest going to help students with the costs of tuition, books and fees, she says. The school began enrolling students in the nine programs this semester and hopes to have 100 participants by the end of the fall semester.

For the first batch of students, A-B Tech identified those with a financial aid need who could benefit from money for tuition and books.

Moore says the partnership with Blue Ridge has been smooth.

“Although we’re not working directly with them, we really like being able to collaborate with other colleges,” she says. “It’s sort of a new thing. We’re facing the same challenges as far as getting students and getting them trained and out in the workforce.”

On-the-job training

While A-B Tech is using its money on semester-based certificates, Blue Ridge is focusing on its apprenticeship program on skilled trades such as electrical, advanced manufacturing and construction. Under the program, students get classroom instruction as well as experience working at local businesses that partner with the school.

“The goal of this whole grant is to train people with the skill set where they can earn a sustainable wage,” says Scott Queen, vice president of economic and workforce development. “And so the good thing about [apprentice programs] is that, by definition, they’re employed.”

Apprenticeship programs can run anywhere from six months to two years. Many students will complete the first tier of an apprenticeship, which is more foundational and basic, and move on to a second tier that is more specialized.

Some of the money is being used to pay tuition costs for students who need assistance (most North Carolina residents who graduated high school within the last 18 months get free tuition to community colleges), as well as for books and supplies.

“What we try to do, the best we can, is look for individuals from underrepresented populations, like for example, women in nontraditional careers like construction or welding,” he explains. “Our ultimate goal is to make those funds go as far as possible and impact as many people as possible. The great thing about this grant is that it’s open to anyone.”

The grant money also has paid for a full-time faculty member who teaches construction and helps recruit students to the school’s construction pathway. Additional money has been spent on table saws, hand tools and other classroom equipment.

The college is planning a marketing push in the summer and fall to get more apprenticeship participation from people who aren’t current BRCC students.

“There’s a skills gap with the trades, and there’s unfortunately just a negative stigma that you’re better off with a four-year education,” he explains. “At some point, if we don’t get more intentional about recruiting young people into these positions, we’re all going to be sitting around not able to get our air conditioning and our power working.”

Just the start

Like A-B Tech’s Moore, Queen sees the value in different schools coordinating their efforts. The two colleges, along with Haywood Community College, already have applied for another Labor Department grant, Strengthening Community College Training.

Nicholson acknowledges $1.4 million is a drop in the bucket when it comes to meeting WNC’s employee training needs. But she is excited that it already has allowed the two colleges to bolster their offerings and help students.

“This is sizable enough where we’re able to check the box of really helping our employers out. We were thrilled to be up there at the million-dollar mark.”



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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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