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Rural colleges respond to changing workforce needs

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Welding instructor Shawn Garretson (left) and student James Woods work in the mechatronics lab at New River Community and Technical College in West Virginia.​​​
​Community colleges in rural areas hard-hit by the economic recession in recent years are working with local employers—and reaching out to companies considering relocating to their communities—to design training programs to meet companies’ workforce needs. 
 
New River Community and Technical College (NRCTC) in West Virginia, for example, is working with four local companies to provide certification programs at its new Education and Technical Training Center, and Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) is responding to a changing economy by developing training programs in advanced manufacturing and wind energy.    
 
“Community colleges are absolutely critical to economic development in rural areas,” said Randy Smith, executive director of the Rural Community College Alliance, an organization affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges. “They are able to develop specific programs and can adapt very quickly."
 
That makes them a critical factor when businesses consider relocating or expanding to rural areas, which often offer the advantages of lower costs of doing business and lower living expenses for employees. Businesses considering relocating in a rural area also look at the availability of qualified workers, ready access to workforce development programs and the quality of life, and rural community colleges have a positive impact on all of these factors, Smith said.
 
In a rural area, the community college is much more than a center for education and training, Smith added. It also contributes to the quality of life by serving as “hubs for the arts, humanities and athletics," he said.
 
Designing customized training
 
In West Virginia, NRCTC used federal stimulus funding to purchase a former factory that once produced modular homes and converted it to a training facility to serve local businesses. It uses the center to serve its partnerships with several companies, such as creating a program to train students in the installation, maintenance, inspection, and removal of electric transmission and communication lines, said NRCTC President Ted Spring.
 
“Appalachian Electric Power (AEP) was concerned about pending retirements, and they wanted to get ahead of the curve,” said Lisa Hatcher, director of the college’s training center. AEP and the program’s other corporate partnersFrontier Communications, MASTEC, Suddenlink and Pike Electricoffered their expertise and donated equipment, including telephone poles for students to practice climbing.
 
The program started in January with 16 students, including an 18-year-old high school graduate, a man with a degree in electronic engineering who was laid off from his job at an electronics factory, and a woman who was working two jobs and still struggling to make ends meet. A line service mechanic with 900 hours of training can earn $75,000 to $100,000 a year, according to Spring.
 
NRCTC is also using its new training center for programs in weatherization and energy analysis and a welding program in cooperation with Phillips Machine Service, a mining equipment company.
 
Spring said there is “tremendous demand” for welders in the area. When the college started a welding program at its Lewisburg Campus at the request of employers, he expected about 20 students would enroll. It now has 90 students. 
 
And when the Greenbrier, a luxury resort nearby, opened a casino last July, NRCTC started a program at the center to train dealers for blackjack, roulette, craps and three-card poker.  
 
The eight-year-old NRCTC has doubled its size in the last five years, which indicates it was badly needed in a state that has the lowest college-going rate in the U.S., Spring said. There are plenty of jobs available in the area, he said, but “we haven’t had opportunities for training before.”
 
Responding to changing economy
 
NICC has also seen a jump in the number of students it serves. As the area lost jobs during the current economic recession, NICC has faced double-digit increases in enrollment in recent years, according to Penelope Wills, the college's president.
 
One county in the area served by NICC lost 700 jobs in metal manufacturing, another lost 250 manufacturing jobs, while a company that made electrical parts for automobiles slashed its workforce from 800 to 450, then shut down, Wills said. But as the unemployment rate is starting to decline, so is the college’s enrollment.
 
“Things are coming back,” Wills said, noting that a new information technology calling center opened nearby, creating 1,300 jobs. “We’ve gone from a job shortage to a workforce shortage.” 
 
The new jobs require more technical skills, so the college is adapting by creating new programs such as a training program for computerized numerical control machinist technicians. Twelve local employers joined together to help write the curriculum, which qualifies students for jobs in advanced manufacturing, Wills said.
 
An underground natural gas training program at NICC was developed in partnership with Black Hills Energy and Alliant Energy. About 65 percent of the employees in that industry are eligible to retire within five years, and “they needed us to develop that program,” Wills said.
 
This fall, NICC started a wind turbine program with 10 companies serving on a college advisory board. The program trains students to maintain the equipment on the top of large wind turbines.  
 
“Community colleges have to be tuned in to the needs of current businesses,” Wills said. “The key is to have everyone working together—community colleges, employers and economic developers.”
 
The only game in town
 
Unemployment has been an issue for several years in the region served by East Central Community College (ECCC) in Mississippi, said its president, Phil Sutphin. Among the companies in the area that have laid off workers are the ESCO steel company, Taylor Machine Works and the La-Z-Boy furniture company. 
 
The region is still dealing with the impact of the garment industry’s desertion, which happened well before the most recent recession, Sutphin said. At the time, Mississippi sought to attract companies with low labor costs, but that strategy “doesn’t do anything to enhance the area economically.”
 
The goal now is to attract higher-paying jobs. ECCC provides customized training in partnership with local companies and works closely with economic developers.
 
“When a prospect comes to the area, we are at the table,” Sutphin said.

One such prospect is KiOR Co., which converts biomaterials like scrub pine into gasoline. The college hopes the company will relocate to the area, and ECCC is considering a new biofuels training program that would, in part, serve the companies training needs, Sutphin said.
 
The college recently used a WIRED (Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development) grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop an M3 (modern multi-skill manufacturing) certificate program. So far, about 1,200 students have earned the M3 certificate, which qualifies them for industrial maintenance positions and the possibility of earning a six-figure salary, Sutphin said.
 
Last month, the college announced it will provide a 30-hour M3 class, held in the evening, free of charge to dislocated or unemployed workers and out-of-school youths, thanks to funding from the Walmart Foundation.
 
While workforce development is a key objective of ECCC and its four workforce training sites, it also plays a major role as a social and cultural hub for the community. 
 
“In rural areas, the community college is the only game in town,” Sutphin said.
Local residents come to the college for football games, the marching band, jazz band and its show and gospel choirs. The college cafeteria is also a popular spot for dining. 

“The whole community comes to the cafeteria for the best Sunday dinner in town,” said Sutphin, noting that a meal of fried chicken, rice and gravy, fried okra, salad and dessert costs $5.75. 
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