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Community and Technical College Initiatives Bridging the Middle Skills Gap

The colleges have strong short-term workforce training and curriculum programs which reflect the demands of the employers for skilled training. These programs run the gamut through healthcare, IT, construction, manufacturing, service, and public safety.

Margaret Roberton, Associate Vice President, Workforce Development – Continuing Education, North Carolina Community College System

With each new industrial revolution, the occupational skills necessary for success change. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will demand new types of skills, trained in unique environments and for highly-specialized activities. And as far back as 2012, the Harvard Business Review was tracking the widening middle skills gap. Middle skills are those professional abilities typically gained via vocational training in one- or two-year programs. They might not require a typical educational path from high school to an undergraduate degree, but rather a partially-traditional and partially-self-directed educational model.

The road to well-paying work begins with marketable skills in current technology, systems, and hardware. Vocational and technical training has long incorporated new developments to increase efficiency. Middle skills attained for new collar jobs will be at the forefront of discussion in 2020 and beyond. The North Carolina Community College System is a prime example of how community college initiatives can bridge the middle skills gap. The NCCCC System operates a Success Center that connects students to jobs pipelines, postsecondary opportunities, and numerous other helpful resources.

Read on to learn more about the North Carolina Community College System’s approach to skilling and education.

Featured Interviewee: Margaret Roberton, Associate VP

Margaret Roberton

Margaret Roberton, Associate Vice President, Workforce Development – Continuing Education, North Carolina Community College System

Margaret Roberton helps oversee workforce development initiatives for the North Carolina Community College system. She was previously a dean at Wake Technical Community College and a director of continuing education at two other colleges: Wayne Community College and Central Carolina Community College. She earned an undergraduate degree at Knox College and an MBA at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The North Carolina Community College System Initiative

The National Skills Coalition published a study (“North Carolina’s Forgotten Middle” 2017) that broke down NC’s middle skill needs. It noted that “key industries in North Carolina are unable to find enough sufficiently trained workers to fill these jobs.” This is where the NCCC System comes in. By gathering the collective resources of the state’s community college institutions under a single organization, these schools can better serve prospective students.

“As employers experience the dual events of a low unemployment and an aging workforce, there is widespread demand to fill middle-skill jobs,” says Margaret Roberton. “This demand cuts across industries within regions and across the state. The community colleges are positioned to respond in both realms as they develop programs.”

For example, one such program is the Catawba Valley Community College’s Furniture Academy. “[It’s] an industry-driven program that prepares students for high-demand positions in furniture manufacturing,” explains Roberton. “We have also beefed up healthcare programs that support the hospitals and health systems across the state.”

The NCCCS site states that, “The mission of the North Carolina Community College System is to open the door to high-quality, accessible educational opportunities that minimize barriers to post-secondary education, maximize student success, develop a globally and multi-culturally competent workforce, and improve the lives and well-being of individuals.”

NCCC has other approaches to help minimize barriers to postsecondary education and providing access to high-quality programs throughout North Carolinian communities. These approaches include mission-critical goals of geographic accessibility, financial aid, and workforce program relevancy. “[These] play a significant role in ensuring North Carolina citizens have opportunities for growth and advancement,” says Roberton.

Colleges are built and situated throughout the state in such a way as to be generally accessible to its populace. There are 58 colleges, which are made up of a total of 165 campuses, sites, and centers. “In addition to the physical sites, the colleges provide access to education through a growing number of online learning opportunities bridging both time and location concerns for students. Thanks to the support of the NC legislature, the community colleges are the most affordable path to postsecondary education through both short-term workforce training and curricular programs.”

Further support through grants, scholarships, and other means can help ease the out-of-pocket expense for students. Overall, the NCCC System supports middle skills growth through three of its main undertakings:

  • College and Career Readiness Initiative: This helps students who didn’t finish high school gain a diploma or equivalency. Via consultation and counseling, integrated instructional modes help teachers ease students’ transition into the skilled workforce.
  • Short-term workforce programs: This aspect of the NCCC initiative offers instructional programs for skilled individuals looking to bolster existing abilities or gain new industry skills. Programs are centered on licensed and certified professional competencies that are subject to periodic renewal and registry listing.
  • Curriculum programs: This prong provides educational opportunities for students and prospective industry professionals via vocational, technical, one- and two-year programs throughout the state. These programs require further training that helps students bridge the gap between two- and four-year degree paths.

Ensuring Student Success in the NCCC System

The NCCC System maintains professional partnerships not only with schools and institutions, but it also enables resource-sharing among the schools. This includes the collaborative development of curriculum to ensure training consistency, leveraging equipment for expensive programs like truck driver training, and adopting common best practices in program delivery.

“The colleges have strong short-term workforce training and curriculum programs which reflect the demands of the employers for skilled training,” Roberton says. “These programs run the gamut through healthcare, IT, construction, manufacturing, service, and public safety. The development of the Credit for Prior Learning program is creating a path to ensure students have the education, through short-term training, for the job they need today, and the opportunity for growth towards their next goal.”

Utilizing an apprenticeship program that served more than 11,000 people in 2019, NCCC operates conferences that bring leading industry voices into contact with students. Another program they have is the Career and College Promise for high school students. This allows them to take community college courses for credit—and for free. The NCCC places serious emphasis on making school more affordable and thus more accessible.

A movement like MyFutureNC clearly demonstrates the state’s dedication to education initiatives. Today, there are 1.3 million postsecondary degree recipients between the ages of 25 and 44 working in the state. MyFutureNC is a government initiative to increase that number to two million degree-holding North Carolinians by the year 2030. Roberton’s organization is at the forefront of this push toward a more educated, skilled workforce

“The 58 community colleges do an amazing job of responding to the workforce needs within their communities,” says Roberton. “The relationships among colleges, employers, economic development partners, and community stakeholders are a central component and dynamic driver of their efforts. As the employment landscape shifts and mobility is an ever increasing consideration for the workforce, the colleges consider where regional responses better meet the demand.”

Middle skills typically refer to skill sets found useful to technology professionals who find themselves in support-type roles. The NCCC oversees a number of colleges, which in turn operate robust manufacturing academies all across the state of North Carolina.

“Through our customized training program, we worked last year with more than 1,000 companies that were either adding jobs, investing in new technologies, or enhancing the productivity of their incumbent workforce,” says Roberton. “Middle skill development is happening in many ways and in many places at our community colleges.” Roberton goes on to further focus the NCCC System’s intent. She says, “The entire mission of the community college responds to the demand for middle-skill development.”

The Future of Community College Workforce Initiatives

The NCCC System has set the standard for community and technical college initiatives bridging the middle skills gap. Going forward, these systemic solutions will continue to branch off and address interesting new avenues. They will become more diverse, inclusive, and precise in their capability to aid those who face educational roadblocks. This is especially true the more students attend, study, and transition into meaningful, well-paying work.

“There are several initiatives underway,” says Roberton. “Many of our colleges have worked with a program called World View at UNC-Chapel Hill, which helps North Carolina schools and community colleges globalize their curricula.” In keeping with this global perspective, Roberston says, “About two dozen of our colleges have been designated as Colleges of Global Distinction in this program. Students have the opportunity to become Scholars of Global Distinction by taking certain courses and becoming involved in international experiences and study abroad.”

There are the scholarly aspects of the NCCC initiative, but there’s also an increasing demand for graduates with cybersecurity and cloud computing skills. To this end, schools all across North Carolina have worked with industry leaders to develop training that streamlines modules and learning materials for critical new middle skills. “Whether it is AI, aviation, new manufacturing processes, public safety needs, or agricultural shifts, the colleges are positioned to build programs and partnerships in order to prepare individuals to meet the changing workforce demands,” says Roberton.

It’s through efforts like these that NC students become more engaged, more culturally-competent, and more competitive in an economy that’s increasingly global. To help NCCC System graduates maintain that competitive edge, the one true benchmark is student success. Community colleges in North Carolina collaborate with respected institutions to ensure that incoming students are prepared for varied paths through the two-year system. And the results are significant. “Community college transfer students perform as well or better than native students within our four-year universities,” says Roberton.

It’s these sort of partnerships that form the networked backbone of a state economy in better equilibrium with its employment needs. The NCCC System is an excellent example of community college initiatives that’ll help to bridge the middle skills gap.

Kenneth Parker

Kenneth Parker is a feature writer, poet, and musician living in the Pacific Northwest. His writing on remote work, education, and technology has been published by BustedCubicle.com, MedicalTechnologySchools.com, and other websites. His poetry, short fiction, and album reviews have appeared in Scifaikuest, Nanoism, and No Clean Singing. His background includes time spent as an associate editor, proofreader, private grammar instructor, freelance content editor, medical claims agent, and SEO consultant. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a composition tutor.