For 60 years, the North Carolina Community College System has been a key partner with the state's economic development commissions in keeping workers trained in trades.
But the old manufacturing economy is giving way to 21st-century business and industry sectors that are heavily skewed toward technology. Local colleges have found they need to be agile in their offerings not only to ensure the state's residents have the tools they need to get a good job, but to make sure new and existing businesses have access to a skilled workforce to meet their unique, perpetually changing needs.
"We are in a disruptive economy now, and we are going to continue to be in a disruptive economy in the future," says Tony Copeland, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Commerce. "We have to be flexible and adaptable or we will lose our relevance."
As North Carolina's labor markets evolve, jobs will require advanced training or education beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year college degree.
This shift will increase demands on the state's community colleges, whose leaders will need to maintain the knowledge, skills and tools necessary for local employers.
This isn't new for North Carolina. In 1958, the state pioneered the nation's first customized training program. That background still influences the community college system, which is recognized as one of the most industry-focused in the U.S., according to system President Peter Hans.
"Preparing the workforce is at the heart of all that our community colleges do," he says.
Retraining workers, or helping them add skills in their current occupations, is going to be an ongoing obligation, but community colleges are uniquely positioned to quickly respond to the need for workers in high-demand fields, such as transportation, construction, information technology, public safety, advanced manufacturing, health care and life sciences, according to Hans. These fields offer good jobs and through short-term training programs at community colleges, workers can get the education needed to get hired.
Outside providing well-trained workers to existing businesses, the state's community college system also helps attract new business and industry. For example, Stanly Community College President John Enamait is a voting member of the Stanly County Economic Development Commission.
"I believe the college should work hard to support existing businesses, but I also want to ensure the college is strategically aligned...