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Solving Talent Supply Challenges: A Conversation with NCCCS President Stith

Job creators joining forces with education providers will empower our state in securing a skilled workforce and leading North Carolinians to rewarding careers. To advance partnerships between community colleges and local employers, the NC Chamber Foundation offers the Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) Academy, an employer-led, demand and data-driven program working to close skill gaps across state and sectors based on supply chain principles. There are regional TPM advisors implementing collaboratives to enhance manufacturing, health care, construction, Life Sciences, and teaching talent pipelines.

Strategic initiatives, such as the TPM Academy, show how the union of our business and community college communities drives North Carolina to achieving a competitive, diverse, and world-class workforce. The NC Chamber values the opportunities to engage in thoughtful conversations with leaders like North Carolina Community College System President Thomas Stith to strengthen collaboration between our 58 community colleges and local employers so that educational training and business needs are aligned.

A Conversation with North Carolina Community College System President Thomas Stith

NC Chamber: What are your top three priorities for your first few years as president?

President Stith: My vision for the System is based upon the following pillars:

  • Serve as the first choice for affordable/accessible education for all North Carolinians,
  • Lead North Carolina’s economic recovery and sustained growth,
  • Become a national model for diversity/inclusion.

How have recruitment and retention efforts evolved for North Carolina’s community colleges due to the pandemic?

We have received additional state and federal funding that goes directly to students to help ease the hardships caused by the pandemic. These funds have helped to retain our students. We are also using other funds to bring new students in or bring former students back. For example, NCCCS has received $15 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds. The funds are being used to provide scholarships to incentivize students to come back to college for short-term workforce training programs in high-demand fields.

On the federal side, our colleges have received funds through the CARES Act, which enables our colleges to give direct financial assistance to students and to provide wrap-around services for students, such as connecting students to community resources to address basic needs like food insecurity, housing, and transportation. CARES Act funds have been used for other specific student support / retention strategies such as virtual student tutoring options, online skills labs, and online testing and proctoring opportunities.

How is the community college system addressing the state’s attainment goal: ensuring that two million North Carolinians have a high-quality credential or degree by 2030?

Community colleges are absolutely critical to meeting the state’s 2030 attainment goal. Our colleges are helping by expanding the number of North Carolinians earning short-term credentials of value in high-demand fields. These high-quality, non-degree credentials are recognized by employers, are in demand by employers, and lead to students obtaining in-demand jobs.

We are also supporting the state’s attainment goal by focusing on reducing the educational attainment gaps in our state. In 2018, only eight of North Carolina’s 100 counties had attainment rates above 50 percent, and 40 had rates below 30 percent. While white North Carolinians have an attainment rate of 49.5 percent, attainment rates lag for Black / African American (33 percent), Native American (27 percent), and Hispanic / Latinx (22.2 percent) residents.

For North Carolina to reach its full economic and social potential, postsecondary education needs to be more widely accessible to residents regardless of race, ethnicity, or zip code. Ensuring that attainment is distributed equally across racial and ethnic groups will be critical to supporting sustained economic growth, as projections show that Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, and multi-racial residents will account for 65 percent of population growth by 2030, with 41 percent of North Carolinians being a person of color by 2030.

Community colleges are also partnering with the myFutureNC team to participate in the ncIMPACT Initiative, which will specifically focus on local education attainment and removing barriers for local student populations. Additionally, our new credit for prior learning policy is a great example of a project that will allow students to apply what they have already learned elsewhere to get a credential faster and enter the workforce more quickly.

During the past year, community college enrollment declines were highest in the critical courses of workforce training (22 percent drop) and basic skills (51 percent drop). Why were these courses significantly impacted by the pandemic and what are your plans for raising enrollment?

These are two areas of education and training that are particularly dependent on in-person, hands-on learning. We are expecting enrollment to bounce back in these areas as pandemic restrictions ease and in-person learning can be accomplished with fewer restrictions. We believe that the pandemic has heavily impacted our adult basic skills students, with increased work or family demands from the pandemic that make attending classes more difficult.

Colleges that operate basic skills programs in correctional facilities also saw a large decline as the facilities closed to outside instructors. We are working with the Department of Public Safety to provide a safe return to instruction in correctional institutions. In addition, we are using the GEER Scholarship Program to incentivize students to return to workforce training as our colleges increase their in-person instruction.

Partnerships between high schools and community colleges are more vital than ever for securing North Carolina’s talent pipeline. How has the pandemic affected College and Career Promise (CCP) and similar programs? Are there new opportunities (middle school programs)?

NCCCS and the NC Department of Instruction (DPI) have continued to work closely to ensure CCP student needs are being met during the pandemic. Our agencies released joint memos to schools and colleges to ensure consistent and clear communication to all partners about changes and flexibilities in the programs. These changes included temporary policies to support student eligibility in Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways as well as allowing flexibility in the High School to Community College Articulation Agreement.

NCCCS created two COVID-specific grading options [IE (Incomplete/Emergency) and WE (Withdrawal/Emergency)] to identify students who needed to withdraw or be given an incomplete due to COVID impact. Interestingly, our CCP students have continued to do very well in their CCP coursework overall with only a slight increase in withdrawals in CTE programs.

As for new opportunities for middle school programs, the federal Perkins V Act now includes acknowledgement of career exploration opportunities beginning with middle school students, which is part of the Joint Perkins State Plan between NCCCS and DPI. Youth Apprenticeship is another opportunity we are pursuing. It begins with a pre-apprenticeship in high school and continues with a full apprenticeship with a community college and industry partner. Students entering the pre-apprenticeship / apprenticeship program are eligible to have their tuition completely waived as long as they are in the program. Youth apprenticeships are one (but not the only) solution to long-term talent pipeline development.

How has the community college system supported North Carolinians who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are seeking new career options?

Our colleges take great pride in the fact that they are always here to provide opportunities for citizens to gain new skills, upskill, or retrain for a new career. This is core to our mission and has not changed, even during the pandemic. Our colleges have remained open and have continued to accept students.

Because our colleges are located and imbedded in local communities, they have strong relationships with local employers. The training and education our colleges offer can help students align their skills and training with local job needs. We have many options for short-term affordable training for high-value credentials that lead to good paying careers.

How can our business community help in raising awareness of the community college system as a prime pathway for affordable, valuable education leading to rewarding jobs?

Hiring community college graduates is one of the best ways businesses show the value and raise awareness of community colleges. Real-life examples of community college students completing courses of study and then landing great jobs are the best testimonials we can provide our prospective students and their parents.

Some additional suggestions for our business community partners are:

  • Provide internships for community college students.
  • Commit to interview community college graduates.
  • Serve on advisory councils for programs and work with colleges to help them develop programs to meet employer training needs.
  • Just as the biopharma industry has done over the past 20 years in North Carolina, promote opportunities that only require a two-year, or less, degree.
  • Support employees who have some college credit but no credential in returning to a community college to finish a certificate, diploma, or degree. Students often drop out as soon as they obtain a job. If employers support them and encourage them to complete their education while working, then they are more likely to complete.
  • Promote tuition reimbursement programs or flexible work schedules for students.

What steps are you taking to position North Carolina’s community college system as a national leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion?

It is critical that our colleges continue to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion to give each student an opportunity to access higher education and to succeed.

We have the following initiatives in progress:

  • Monitoring our data to determine where we have attainment gaps and then focusing on addressing those gaps. For example, we know that enrollment is down for Black males (30 percent) and for African Americans and Latino males (20 percent). We are working to increase enrollment from these demographics.
  • Our NC Student Success Center is engaging with college faculty and staff on bringing an equity focus directly into the classroom.
  • Pilot programs at our colleges to connect students to resources in their communities that can help them stay in school. The programs aim to address housing and food insecurity in particular. Program evaluations will follow to determine our return on investment and how to scale the program beyond the pilot phase.
  • A new System Advisory Council Initiative on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is being led by a committee of college presidents, working in collaboration with Jobs for the Future. The Council recognizes that policies often form the basis of institutional culture and influence student experience, opportunity, and success. This initiative focuses on identifying institutional or policy-related inequities limiting opportunities for students, faculty, and staff and making recommendations to address them.

Collaboration between the community college system and local employers is essential for aligning educational training with business needs. How can we build and enhance these relationships in every county to achieve a skilled, diverse, and world-class workforce statewide?

Within each of our 58 community colleges, we have individuals who are assigned to work with local business and industry. These individuals know when a company is expanding, adding new equipment, or when there is a need for retraining of existing employees. Our colleges are equipped to determine what knowledge, skills, and abilities are required of each job classification within these companies. This gives us the ability to assess current employees and develop specialized curriculum to address the skill gaps. Additionally, within our curriculum programs, we have working advisory committees, which allows for industry to make recommended changes to our existing programs.

Partnerships with the NC Department of Commerce, NC Workforce Commission, Economic Development Partnership of NC, and the Governor’s Office are providing the support of local “Next Generation Sector Partnerships” and the NC Chamber Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management (TPM). These are foundational in that they should be the first step utilized in any initiative or effort surrounding workforce development. These strategic tools begin by bringing in industry, placing them in the center of the room, and listening to their needs. Community college staff partners directly with NC TPM Academy graduates to support local efforts.

North Carolina has two successful Next Gen Sector Partnerships: Western NC (Rutherford, McDowell, and Burke counties) and the Cape Fear region. Both are focused on manufacturing. Our state also has TPM projects the NC Chamber Foundation is supporting that include our colleges: Cape Fear / Brunswick for construction and Central Carolina for Life Sciences. Additionally, the system formed the Council of Associations for Engagement a few years ago to provide a conduit for the state’s industry associations to provide input and feedback on how the system can better respond to the needs of their members. Efforts like these must be scaled to more communities.

Our ApprenticeshipNC team works with our local community colleges and employers when a registered apprenticeship is a potential solution to developing the workforce pipeline. We are collaborating with public schools and industry sectors to continue to expand our youth apprenticeship program. Since transferring to the North Carolina Community Colleges, apprenticeship has grown by 80 percent over the past four years.