At rural colleges, workforce development on a budget

By Ed Finkel

Rural colleges work to address workforce development needs in geographic areas that may have lost key industries over the decades.

It has nothing to do with Monty Python, but the Flying Circus drone-race events during the past three years in Covington, Virginia, are one of many reasons and indications that rural community colleges and their students are looking toward the bright side of life.

Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in nearby Clifton Forge, a co-host of the drone racing event, has partnered with the city, a local economic development corporation and several local businesses to create a short-term certificate program for unmanned systems technicians, who learn to repair and maintain drones.

This has led a Florida company to add a site nearby, in what’s now called the Allegheny Highlands Drone Zone incubator, that will eventually hire 25 Lancaster-trained technicians, who will make at least $50,000 per year, says John Rainone, president of the college, which serves an 1,800-square-mile region with a population of only 70,000.

“The goal was to diversify the economy into other areas,” Rainone says, noting the program has about a half dozen partners. “In a small area, none of us has the resources to do it alone.”

Because traditional financial aid can’t pay for short-term certificate programs, Lancaster worked with the college’s educational foundation to provide scholarships.

The drone program is one of several at Lancaster, and one of many at rural community colleges across the nation, which address workforce development needs in geographic areas that may have lost key industries over the decades. Many are leveraging creative financial assistance to ensure that students of limited means can earn certificates or degrees.

Apprenticeships and more

In addition to the drone program, Lancaster hopes to expand its apprenticeship training in fields such as welding and advanced manufacturing after receiving one of 80 grants for that purpose from a partnership between the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and the U.S. Department of Labor. The college has forged about 30 to 40 apprenticeships per year with local businesses like a nearby paper mill, and Rainone says the college has a goal of 150 apprentices over the next three years, who will enjoy tuition reimbursement from the grant money.

“This is a great way to come back around and help employers. Just like in every part of the country, they’re desperate for help,” he says. “It’s worked beautifully for 25 years with our largest employer in this area, so I don’t see why it can’t work for other, smaller companies.”

Lancaster also participates in a state program called FastForward through which participants can gain high-demand industry credentials in a matter of weeks. The most popular such program at Lancaster leads to a CDL truck license, a course of study that costs $2,400 and can be completed in less than 60 days, leading to a wage of between $32 and $35 per hour, Rainone says. Under the program, the student needs to pay only $800 at the outset, and based on a needs assessment, the state can reduce that to as little as $80, he says.

“The financial aid is there for the low-income people, we get the middle-class back to work, and we have plenty of job openings,” Rainone says. “We just don’t have the bodies to fill them. We have companies calling us once a week, asking, ‘Do you have any graduates for CDL? Or nursing assistants?’”

The Brunswick Guarantee

Brunswick Community College in Brunswick County, North Carolina, has supported students in workforce development programs thanks to the Brunswick Guarantee, a last-dollar scholarship program passed by county commissioners to benefit high school graduates from the county. Starting with 50 students and now at 100, it provides up to $750 per semester for tuition, fees and books, says Brunswick President Gene Smith.

To further help students financially, Brunswick also has leveraged the state College and Career Promise program, which allows junior and senior high school students to do dual enrollment tuition-free on college campuses. And Brunswick has an early-college high school right on its campus, so students can complete their associate degree early — sometimes while they’re still in high school, says Greg Bland, vice president for economic workforce development and continuing education.

“It’s a dream come true for a high school student coming from a family without a college graduate to guide them,” he says. “What a wide-open door. It keeps our young people, our talent, here a little while longer. They’re much more likely to succeed on a university campus if they experience this, and mature a little bit.”

The fastest-growing workforce development field in Brunswick County is the building trades, given its coastal location between Wilmington, North Carolina, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Bland says. The college received a $400,000 Pathways to Purpose grant in April 2019, after Hurricane Florence had devastated the area several months earlier, to help build out these programs, which pays for students’ registration fees, credentials testing, books, transportation and childcare.

“It’s quick training, with credentials that are recognized,” Bland says. “Students have work-based learning experiences before the class ends. It’s a way to introduced them to the world of work before they finish the course.”

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Ed Finkel

is an education writer based in Illinois.