Commissioner Jim Greene: Better jobs for better lives in Rowan
Workforce development in the 21st century is much more than teaching our children to read a tape measure and handling a level. During the last 15 years, we have seen huge segments of our economy completely vanish. One of our municipalities lost 5,000 jobs in one day! Generations of families had to be retrained. This retraining effort was not only job training but improving basic education levels.
In 2009, we saw the elimination of skilled and semi-skilled trades, carpenters, plumbers, welders, brick masons and others. These trades were often performed by small two-, three- and four-man companies who created the backbone of our local economy. Many of these tradesmen have found other employment and are hesitant to return to self-employment.
Statistics show us that college graduates will make more money and be less likely to be unemployed than other categories of workers. These statistics also follow an expected path: college graduates followed by some college, then high school graduates and finally employees with no high school diploma. As education levels decrease, so do expected income and job security.
Our families usually provide the largest influence on our level of education. Students who come from parents with college degrees are twice as likely to attend college. But today, there are factors such as unemployment of a parent, non-traditional college courses, plus the high cost of secondary education that affect the desires of students.
As part of growing the economy of Rowan County, the Board of Commissioners has made workforce development a strategic concern. We recognize that an educated, highly skilled, motivated workforce is one of the most valuable assets a community possesses. Current unemployment rates are approximately 4.7 percent in Rowan County and 4.5 percent in the state. But many of our citizens work two part-time jobs to support their families. While being considered employed, they often have no health insurance or retirement benefits. Others, after unemployment benefits run out, just stop looking for jobs and are not counted in these statistics.
In Rowan County, 27 percent of our population receives some services from the county, or state and federal programs. These 35,000 and others who are underemployed need a way to achieve self-sufficiency.
Rowan County is so fortunate that our public schools and our four local colleges are driven to improve the lives and employment skills of their students. Each partner has added new programs to improve job skills or entrepreneurial pursuits.
High school education
The Rowan-Salisbury School System has shown improvements in student academics through out-of-the-box ideas for teaching critical thinking. Individual computers have allowed students to follow self-interest and learning at individual speeds. Small group learning mirrors workplace environments. Career Academies are located at each high school, teaching trades and the arts. One of the most overlooked workplace development areas is our FFA programs. Each year, these programs help train students in different areas of our largest income industry: farming.
In 2017, new classes for advanced technology were created at Salisbury High School. This new area of study was created through a $700,000 grant by the Golden Leaf Foundation. A staff of two is now teaching 240 students advanced machining and engine repair. They will expand their courses into mechatronics, machining and welding as soon as staff can be secured. Classes are full and a waiting list of more than 50 students is hoping to be able to take advantage of this training. An added benefit shows that students involved in Career & Technical Education have had 12 percent higher graduation rates each year since 2014.
Rowan-Cabarrus Community College has been engaged in training our community since 1963. Its partnership with Rowan County is invaluable. Training either through basic educational classes, skilled training (electronics, welding, auto repair) or continuing education requirements has touched almost every family in Rowan.
In 2017, your Board of Commissioners decided to invest funds into workforce development in East Spencer. Having worked with the R3 program hosted at the north campus of RCCC, we asked to move the classroom to East Spencer. The NC Manufacturers Institute classes were conducted and several citizens earned certificates and had offers of full-time employment. Having seen the benefits of this program, we allocated enough money to take this program into other areas of our community, hoping to enable first-time job seekers and individuals working part-time to move into full-time employment with benefits. We named this program “Better Jobs for Better Lives.” We are only halfway into establishing our expected number of locations and have touched 640 people with employability services (help with applications, information about employers, etc.). Forty-four students have received fully-paid scholarships to attend certification programs and job offers.
Better Jobs for Better Lives has also attracted other investors. The City of Salisbury and the North Carolina Community College system have invested $214,000 to fund equipment and scholarships for programs in the construction industry. This program will work in and with neighborhoods in Salisbury to provide hands-on training for well-paying jobs with high demand connections to local builders.
Rowan-Cabarrus has just broken ground for a new Advanced Technology Center on the Bio-Technology campus in Kannapolis. This center will educate our citizens of Rowan and Cabarrus counties in advanced machining, robotics and even jobs that have not yet been created at this time. This center will allow citizens of our region to prepare for change with unknown possibilities.
This center was made possible by a bond approved by taxpayers of Cabarrus and additional money approved by the Board of Commissioners of Cabarrus County. This $17 million commitment, along with a 3-acre land donation by David Murdock, brought this project to a reality. Ground breaking was held Jan. 22. This facility will provide industry-recognized certifications, hands-on skills and customized training. You or your children may well become part of the 21st century workforce in 2019.
Our own Livingstone College, which has provided liberal arts education since 1897, has added degrees to their standard academic studies. Degrees in culinary arts and hospitality management are now available to Livingstone students. Students have choices to learn and practice with hands-on experience in these additional majors. Hopefully these experiences will lead to immediate employment.
2017 also brought forth a proposition from Catawba College called The Idea Center. This center, which will be located in the West End Plaza, was created to stimulate innovation and to facilitate and support entrepreneurial activity. This $3 million project will encompass such unique elements as: the Idea Venture lab, a co-working space, a digital media production studio, prototyping space, the new NC Museum of Innovation and the Idea Café. This project would be like none other attempted before in Rowan County, and hopefully will produce the next Bill Gates or Ralph Ketner.
Our community has moved from textile-based economy to a diverse and growing member of Charlotte Metropolitan region. One of our municipalities, Kannapolis, has not only rebuilt their economy but is literally rebuilding their city.
We now have a skilled and well-funded economic development commission (Rowan Works). It is ready to compete for the wellbeing of our community. We have already seen success this year with expansion of existing companies, speculative construction and the lowest unemployment rate since 2008.
We can’t be complacent. We must go forward bragging about out wonderful community, educating ourselves and our children with the satisfaction that learning brings. But this learning will also give us the ability to become skilled members of a dynamic economy and provide graciously for your families and our community.
Jim Greene is vice-chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.