The community college: where innovation and opportunity meet
Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have visited Forsyth Tech in the past 10 years and both have been looking for answers to the same question: What role do community colleges play in the new economy?
I’m glad they asked that question! And I’m glad Research Triangle Park is asking that question.
From where I sit, that role is substantial and critical. The more people – the more researchers, scientists, legislators, university leaders, parents, teachers, guidance counselors and of course, employers – who understand what community colleges can and must do, the healthier our economy and our whole society will be.
Here’s what I’d like people to know about what we’re doing at Forsyth Tech, what kind of challenges we face, and where we will need more support.
First the good news:
Longtime observers will have noticed that with each successive recession, the jobs that come back after a recession require a higher level of skill than the jobs that are lost. That has been true for at least 30 years, and as we see coming out of this long and deep recession, the trend is even more pronounced this time around.
We are successfully training people, and retraining people, for new economy jobs and careers. We have strong programs in biotechnology, nanotechnology, digital design, advanced manufacturing technologies, the myriad clinical health technical specialties, and skills for the new business arena, including global logistics, import/export and regulatory compliance.
Yes, the demand is there right now for people with these skills, and in some cases our students are able to be certified to perform these jobs even before they graduate. Partnering with Microsoft, Cisco and other major players, we now have a testing center on our Main Campus where IT students – and soon, employees of local companies – can receive national certification. Similarly, our state-of-the art Transportation Center is a certified training center for both Toyota and Snap-On Tools.
It’s worth mentioning that Forsyth Tech and other community colleges are not just implementing the discoveries of others. We’re very much part of the innovation process. The National Center for the Biotechnology Workforce is housed at Forsyth Tech. We were one of four colleges chosen by the National Association of Manufacturers to pilot a national skills certification program. And our faculty members and graduates are frequently founders of innovative businesses.
We’re proud that we consistently respond to what employers in our region tell us they need in terms of workforce development. We assemble advisory panels of knowledgeable community people when we develop new certification and degree programs and to guide existing programs. With their help, we’re able to get new programs up and running fast. We also provide customized training to keep their employees up to changing demands.
Where we’re challenged:
Not everybody knows what the knowledge economy looks like. Thousands of people would be amazed at how different our Transportation Center is from an old time autobody shop, for example, and would be similarly awestruck at how clean, orderly, and high tech the new Caterpillar manufacturing facility is.
Some of our strongest efforts to get people to understand what 21st-century jobs entail are initiatives with the public schools. Students now need to focus on the STEM disciplines and we partner with others in the community to make those studies come alive. For two years we have hosted the Robot Run Invitational Tournament for middle school teams of students, a demanding and very lively competition organized by the Technology Council of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce. We also partner with the Chamber and the public schools for Triad BioSummer, where high school and middle school students get real world exposure to such work as stem cell research, pharmaceutical development and forensics.
Not everybody who comes to our college is ready for college, and for many it is a second chance to build a successful future. High school drop-outs, college drop-outs, people whose jobs, or even their whole industries, have disappeared, all kinds of people who need a fresh start come to community colleges and many succeed in ways and degrees that are truly inspiring.
Yet I wish more people were aware of the whole range of students we see everyday, who need far more than a place in a classroom or lab or shop. Ex-offenders, for example, make up huge number of people who need training in America, because we imprison more people than other countries do. People who are newly arrived in our country, and who may have limited English are another group that can benefit themselves, and all of us, by becoming employable. And of course the many, many disadvantaged people who have all but given up hope on anything approaching the American dream are people we feel called to offer real opportunity.
Here again, the staff of Forsyth Tech, and the other community colleges in the system, are virtual miracle workers in the many kinds of support they provide. One innovative program we started last year is called Eminent Force. We go into the high schools and actively recruit minority young men who have the potential but never imagined they could go to college. They receive not only financial aid, but exposure to professional events, individual mentoring, even suits to wear to job interviews.
I wish more people could see the gap between the jobs that do exist, and are going begging in many cases, and all the people who could be trained to do that work, if only we could bring enough resources to bear.
That brings us to what needs to happen now.
I often think that there is no better place than a community college to see all the forces that are converging in our country today – all the potential, all the need, all the ideas and technologies that are coming into being.
Those two Presidents I met had it right. We need to be investing in research and education. We need to be investing in our children and our future. During the current recession, $80 million has been pulled out of North Carolina’s community college system. If we’re going to stand up to the increasing pressures of global competition, we’re going to have to put our resources into these colleges which have proved to be so adept at quickly responding to new technologies, new demands from industries, and new and fast-growing student demographics.
Especially, I believe, we need to think more deeply about how all of us involved in inventing the future — the universities, the research organizations, the schools, the businesses, and the community colleges – can best collaborate and create synergies.
The need for deep change is urgent, and we will only bring about that change by thinking and working together.
Dr. Gary M. Green
Dr. Gary M. Green is President of Forsyth Technical Community College. Under his leadership, Forsyth Tech has renewed its commitment to learning and student success, work force development, and community development.