Career training at Robeson Community College, in Lumberton, North Carolina, has taken a high-tech turn, focusing less on trades like plumbing and carpentry and more on fields like advanced manufacturing and allied health.
The person steering these changes is Channing Jones, vice president of workforce development at Robeson, who notes that technology has become the driver of the local job market in recent years.
“Incorporating technology into our workforce program, using skills assessments, allows us to keep up with the trends that are happening in the workforce,” Jones says.
While textiles were once the region’s dominant industry, the area’s economy is now much more diverse, with top employers in the food, storage and packaging industries, among others. Increasingly, these employers require fewer workers, but ones with higher levels of technical skills, Jones says.
Coming together to create career pathways
Recently, a group of manufacturers, colleges and workforce-development boards formed a consortium called Robeson Technical Works to invest in local training for positions that are especially difficult to fill. Part of the effort has involved working with local public schools to create a pathway to technical careers. For instance, some of Robeson’s training equipment is now on high school campuses, so students can earn college credit while still in high school.
On the Robeson campus, the college is providing high-demand job training through an accelerated program for industrial-maintenance technicians. Jones says that the program has successfully addressed two needs: Manufacturing employers need more workers with the skills to handle maintenance problems; and many workers who lost jobs during the recession need new, marketable skills.
The program appears to be working: Eighty-five percent of the students who have completed the program have landed jobs, and several have gone on to pursue associate degrees, Jones says.
A Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant helped the college shift its training instruction. Robeson was the lead institution in a 10-school consortium that received the first round of grants from the U.S. Department of Labor. The funding enabled the college to revamp its advanced manufacturing lab and provide professional development for instructors.
The TAACCCT grant also paid for student support services, such as success coaches, to improve completion rates. “These wraparound services are as important, in many regards, as the classes themselves,” Jones says.
Arming students with the skills they need
Robeson’s workforce-training overhaul has included a shift from didactic teaching methods and assessment toward a competency-based model. In addition, courses cover the soft skills employers value, along with the technical knowledge necessary for the job.
“In all of our programs, we have some form of human-resource development initiative,” Jones says. “This teaches our students about what it means to be professional in a workplace — what team-building looks like, what leadership looks like.”
Jones believes the key to the success of its workforce-development model has been involving business and community partners in the creation of the training programs. Robeson has formed an employer advisory group for each workforce-training program.
“Be very engaged with your current workforce partners,” Jones advises. “The more input you get from your community partners, the better you are going to be able to respond to the needs they have.”