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Spirit of Rowan: RCCC is educating for the new workforce

Machinist student

Second year student, Jarrett Speight works inside the cabinet of  a computerized Haas Milling Center machine in the RCCC Machinist Technology Department.  The machine is programed to do all sorts of task in cutting and shaping metals.   photo by Wayne Hinshaw, for the Salisbury Post

Second year student, Jarrett Speight works inside the cabinet of a computerized Haas Milling Center machine in the RCCC Machinist Technology Department. The machine is programed to do all sorts of task in cutting and shaping metals. photo by Wayne Hinshaw, for the Salisbury Post

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

The North Campus of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College is quiet and unassuming. The yellow stone of the buildings doesn’t stand out, and students move to and from their classes with little fuss.

From the outside, it’s hard to tell what the school is hiding.

“I think people don’t think of us as being a high-tech school, but we are,” Rowan-Cabarrus Community College President Dr. Carol S. Spalding said.

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College was named as one of the 2014-2015 Top Ten Digital Community Colleges in the country by the Center for Digital Education, Spalding said. And recently, the school has put a lot of effort into improving technical aspects of the campus, as well as giving its curriculum a facelift to prepare students for the world waiting for them after graduation.

Perhaps the most obvious project RCCC worked on this year is the renovation of North Campus’s 600 building. Driving down Interstate 85 it’s hard to miss — the new face gleams. Its old hallways and lab tables are being reworked and remodeled to provide new, higher-tech labs and facilities for those students who are on the science track.

But when it comes to academics, the college has been far from idle. It’s not just the 600 building that’s shiny and new — the information technology program also got a makeover.

RCCC is now one of only two community colleges in the state and one of 42 in the country to offer a cyber security program, Spalding said. Not only does this equip students to enter a high-demand, high-paying field, but it also offers them incredible internships. The program partnered with several local businesses and banks, as well as the National Security Agency, to provide training and job experience opportunities, Spalding said.

But in a fast-paced, ever-advancing world, sometimes it takes more than some tweaking—sometimes it takes something new. The leaps and bounds and increasing technology involved in staple manufacturing jobs have prompted Rowan-Cabarrus to rev up a new program: The North Carolina Manufacturing Institute. And it’s entirely thanks to community demand, Craig Lamb, vice president of corporate and continuing education, said.

“The North Carolina manufacturing institute is really a reaction to a couple of different things. One’s a change in technology and in jobs, and the other is a change in the job market,” he said.

Manufacturing is no longer the simple career it used to be, he explained. Now, entry-level manufacturing jobs require a lot of technical knowledge and specialized training.

“But the workforce didn’t really have a vehicle for getting that advanced training,” he said.

Unable to fill job openings or find tech-savvy workers, local corporations approached RCCC and offered to collaborate. Craig said the school was approached by local corporations who were unable to fill job openings, and collaborated with community groups to start a scholarship program.

The result was the North Carolina Manufacturing Institute, a scholarship program that trains its students over eight weeks to become certified production technicians. Over the course of the class, students must have perfect attendance, pass a drug test, and pass four national certification exams.

“This is a standard that we’re teaching to that the demand side, the employers, have already defined,” Lamb said.

When students finish the program, they’re slated to start work with one of RCCC’s local partners. If they pass employer approval and stay on the job for at least 90 days, the manufacturer pays the scholarship back to RCCC, enabling another hopeful to enter the program.

“It means that employers know exactly what they’re getting,” Lamb said, “it means that employers only pay when they get value . . . and that the community is investing in its future workforce.”

It’s a new way of looking at learning, curriculum and programs of study, and it’s a direction that community colleges, RCCC in particular, are moving towards.

“What a college has traditionally done is that we prepare people, generally, for something — for a job. And then as a student, you graduate and you look for a job,” Dr. Michael Quillen, vice president of academic programs said.

But that model doesn’t work anymore — not for students, and not for employers. Instead, Quillen says, employers want their future workforce to be certified and to have the knowledge to perform a specific job. Which, on the school’s end, results in a much more focused form of learning.

“It is an approach that we’re going to take, and that we are well under way of taking, in all of our technical programs. If there’s national certification or accreditation, we will pursue it,” Quillen said.

To that end, RCCC is trying to offer as many accreditation and certification programs as it can. This year, the school received accreditation for its computer integrated machining program from the National Institute for Metalworking, Quillen said, and hopes to add many more.

The entirety of RCCC’s curriculum now revolves around helping students choose and succeed on a career path. The school offers a variety of internships, and makes sure to tie in practical experience with every class, such as asking students to shadow, research or interview someone from their prospective field.

“That direct connection with the workforce is really a thing that is driving our thinking about how curriculum should be designed,” Lamb said.

The abundance of internships and shadowing opportunities means that local employers are able to provide RCCC with instant feedback that allows the school to tweak its programs.

It works well for local employers, who are able to get to know students while they’re still in school and can be able to offer them a job immediately after they’ve graduated.

“We know that when a student walks through the door, there’s a company that’s sitting at the other end,” Quillen said.

But many students who walk through the arch at RCCC aren’t looking for a local job — its associate in arts transfer program is the school’s largest, Spalding said. Currently, RCCC receives its accreditation from the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, which means that its credits transfer anywhere. But partnerships and transfer agreements like the one RCCC has with Catawba College means that a history credit will transfer as a history credit instead of an elective.

This year, the college signed a similar transfer agreement with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte — its first in the UNC system — and is working on agreements with other schools.

“What we’re really trying to do is make sure that students can come here, they can get a high-quality education, and they can take it anywhere they want to take it. And we want to make that as seamless as possible,” Quillen said.

Two new programs, occupational therapy and physical therapy assistant, were also launched in 2015. And RCCC is always focused on honing its dental, radiography and nursing programs, Spalding said.

“We know those are high-paying, good careers, so we have put a lot of our effort into building on the success of the programs we already have,” she said.

Looking towards the future, RCCC’s north campus has big plans. School officials are currently raising money to building an outdoor learning area, a solar project and an advanced technology center. They’re focusing on moving more degree programs online — currently they have seven — along with offering 24/7 online tutoring to ensure that education doesn’t have to wait due to a busy schedule.

“It’s fully within the grasp of every student to come here, graduate with a good job, locally, debt free,” Lamb said.

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