Take 5

Marchant: Economic development starts with highly skilled workforce
Sep. 21, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

This week, we Take 5 with Dr. T. E. “Bud” Marchant, the president of Central Carolina Community College, about the so-called skills gap of the American workforce and the transition of our country’s skills-based economy. Marchant became president of CCCC in 2008, bringing a strong background in both academics and economic development to the position. A native of Columbia, S.C., his career includes time as a teacher, junior high school principal and dean of several programs at the technical and community college level. A former executive director of the Greater Beaufort (S.C.) Chamber of Commerce, Marchant continues to be active in economic development organizations. At CCCC, Marchant has led the college in creating a partnership with Caterpillar Inc. for one of the largest Youth Apprenticeship in Welding programs in North Carolina, and partnering with N.C. State University’s Confucius Institute to open the Confucius Classroom, the first in the nation at a community college.

A recent national survey found graduates with a two-year degree in some fields earned just as much, if not more, than those with a four-year degree. Is that a function of the declining value of a four-year degree, or a chink in the jobs market, or something entirely different?

This is something entirely different. The line between the old definitions of “blue collar” jobs and “white collar” jobs has moved. Employers are asking not just what degree do you have, but what can you do. The skill level of an individual is becoming increasingly important. Whether a person has four-year or two-year degree, a diploma or a certificate, it must translate into the ability to understand a task and apply skills to accomplish it. The ability to continue to learn and adapt is also increasingly important.

That is why CCCC offers programs such as Career Readiness Certification. They complement specific vocational training with basic workforce functional skills in reading, math and information location. Employers know that a workforce educated for the workplace is a more productive, safe, and loyal workforce. 

There’s been a lot of discussion nationally about the “skills gap” in the American workforce. The unemployment rate is high, but some high-paying jobs are going unfilled because employers can’t find enough skilled workers. Skilled workers need training; how does CCCC help bridge that gap?

CCCC offers a number of programs that fit into today’s skills-based economy. All of our medical programs are in high demand. In addition, we offer several engineering technology programs, a nationally recognized laser program, advanced machining technology, CAD, welding and other high-skills training. Employment recruiters from across the Southeast regularly visit our campuses because of the high quality reputation of our programs and graduates.

When people come to us as students, it doesn’t matter how old they are or what skills they have – or don’t have. If they are willing to study and work hard, our staff and faculty are wonderful at encouraging them to achieve.

We have had numerous students come to us without even a high school education — or even adequate English skills. We start where they are and guide them through our Career and College Readiness programs to bring their skill levels up to what is required for success in college. Then they can enroll in continuing education or curriculum programs that put them on the path to the workforce skills that are in high demand.

Through our Industry Services Office, we also provide workforce training to upgrade workers’ skills either at the workplace or at our Industry Training Center at the Lee County Innovation Center.

What classes and programs at CCCC aren’t at capacity that correspond to high-paying starting wages in the workforce?

With the exception of the medical programs, none of the vocational programs I’ve mentioned are at capacity. And that is a shame. These programs will allow a student to earn a good living. I think there is a disconnect between what potential students think a career in these fields would be like and what it will really be.

Also, make no mistake about it, these programs are not easy. They require a high degree of study and dedication to master the subject matter. That being said, the faculty and staff at CCCC are committed to student success. If a student wants to succeed, we will do our best to help him or her.

There’s discussion about the “return” of manufacturing in the United States and in North Carolina – but are we really ready for the wave of high-tech manufacturing jobs coming back from overseas?

Manufacturing is back! But, it is not the same manufacturing that went away. These are high-tech, high-skill, high-paying positions within career fields. They are not just jobs in the old sense of the word.

North Carolina and Lee County are in a perfect position to take advantage of these returning jobs if we continue to accelerate our high-skills manufacturing workforce training.

Unlike some states and European counties, I don’t think we have turned the corner yet on valuing these jobs for what they are. It is going to take great effort on everyone’s part – parents, students, educators, governments, and other agencies – to get the message across to young people that manufacturing jobs are excellent career choices.

We need to get the word out more than we do so people will understand and value that acquiring these skills is just as much a ticket to the middle class as obtaining a four-year degree.

For decades now, high school students have been taught that pursuing white-collar jobs after getting four-year university degrees is the answer to job security. But there are plenty of high-paying blue-collar jobs as well. What say you? What options should high school students looking at post-secondary education consider?

High school students and their parents should carefully consider all options available to them, whether they plan to transfer from CCCC to a four-year institution or learn a marketable skill at the college and go directly into the workforce.

Once again, I don’t think the terms “white collar” and “blue collar” apply anymore. As I said, modern manufacturing requires computer and math skills. Students should learn about and think about what they would like to do and get as much education as they can as early as they can. That will broaden their options.

Education and industry working together can offer tremendous opportunities in hands-on work that is satisfying, in-demand and well paid. Many CCCC programs offer internships with area employers, providing students with a “real-world” experience while still in school.

At Central Carolina Community College, we are actively working to establish apprenticeship programs for young people with area manufacturers and school systems, such as the current Youth Apprenticeship in Welding with Caterpillar’s Sanford fabrication facility.

I recommend high school students work with counselors and teachers at their schools to get input on their educational choices. Also, check out CCCC’s web site, www.cccc.edu, where the programs we offer are listed and many explained in depth. Then take the tours of college vocational programs that are put on each year. They can also connect with specific departments that they are interested in. Numerous vocational information resources are available on the Internet.

As for affording college, our Financial Aid website, www.cccc.edu/financialaid, is full of good information and has links to resources.

A recent article inThe Wall Street Journal said, “A skilled-worker shortage can even darken the jobs picture for the less-skilled, because companies that can’t expand production for lack of enough skilled workers may not need as many salespeople, forklift drivers or janitors. They may buy fewer parts, potentially affecting the size of their suppliers’ workforce. Such ripple effects wouldn’t matter as much if less-skilled workers had more options, as many found, for instance, after the dot-com bust, by going into home construction. Today’s economic sluggishness leaves fewer such escape routes.” What’s your reaction to those statements?

It is my belief that the bedrock of the economy is the ability to make something. Once a product is made, it can be sold, used, traded, recycled, etc. The production of a product sets off a chain reaction that creates many other spinoff jobs.

It is my opinion that those who say we live in a post-manufacturing world are just wrong.  By increasing the level of production, we automatically increase the number and variety of other jobs.

Those with low skill levels are always going to have a difficult time finding work with a living wage. They need to be encouraged to get more education and increase their skill sets so that they are not locked into a low-paying – or no – job.

In education, business, industry and government, we need to do our best to get the message through to them — you can learn, you can achieve! Especially at community colleges, the opportunities are there, and we will do our best to help you find the resources to pay for an education and to gain the confidence and skills you need for a brighter future.

You can become a highly skilled worker! In doing so, you benefit not only yourself and your family, but also those who have fewer skills and depend on what you produce to create jobs for them.

Economic development for the individual, family, community, state and nation starts with a highly skilled workforce!