In Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, the theme was, “If you build it, they will come” – but now, Guilford County’s key economic development strategy mantra is, “If you train a workforce, they will come.”
At times, top area economic development officials have a fairly glamorous job that involves things like flying off to the Paris Air Show or taking a jaunt through Germany to help lure a wiener schnitzel factory to the triad. However, one of the least glamorous, more down to earth – but equally essential – parts of that effort is helping to develop a countywide workforce that will attract new businesses.
That effort has never been more evident than right now when so much discussion among Guilford County commissioners, public school system and community college leaders and economic development officials has focused on a slew of programs to enhance workforce development in this area.
Superintendent of Guilford County School’s Sharon Contreras is clearly making training students for today’s workforce a priority. For years, the school system has justified requests for large amounts of money based on the argument that a high-quality school system enhances economic development – and Contreras says she is laser-focused on training students for the job market.
Contreras has been getting a good deal of praise from Guilford County commissioners that has nothing at all to do with the fact that she’s overcome a severe hearing impediment to reach great heights, and it has everything to do with her push for major change in the county’s high schools. At the Guilford County Board of Commissioners retreat in early February, Contreras offered a wake up call for Guilford County when she told the commissioners that things need to change in a big way.
“As I look at the schools, I see that we are still building, redesigning and renovating schools based on the 19th-century factory model, with four walls and a teacher in front,” Contreras told the commissioners. “That’s just not the current way that you design schools.”
She said that, instead, when schools are built or remodeled, those efforts should include very flexible and large workspaces “that allow for problem-based learning, project-based learning, and critical-thinking.” That would include more hands-on, real world training such as those students are likely to need once employed.
Contreras is also on a mission to bring technology-rich high schools to Guilford County, which she said are now “very limited” here, as well as to create P-TECH, or vocation-based, high schools in the county. When she was superintendent of the school system in Syracuse, New York, that system built P-TECH high schools, which stands for “Pathways in Technology Early College High School.”
The first P-TECH high school opened in Brooklyn in 2011 and since then they have been growing in popularity across the country.
She said these are high schools that allow students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in manufacturing technology, engineering technology or electrical engineering technology, and she added that employers, the school system and GTCC would work together closely in the initiative.
She said area school system leaders have been trying to improve the schools by enhancing workforce readiness. She said one key aspect of that which is seeing a great deal of support among school officials is “career technical education,” also known as “vocational education.”
She said the issue of preparing students for employment “transcends race, gender, social and economic class,” and she added that it’s essential given the nature of the businesses Guilford County is attracting.
“So we’ve been thinking a great deal as my transition team goes to work about what kind of schools and programs we need,” she told the commissioners. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the megasite,” she said, “in order to ensure that our residents have the jobs within the county, within the region, and within the state.
“We have to make sure we have a manufacturing high school,” she said, “a high school that prepares students for those manufacturing jobs.”
Of course, one big problem with the current economic environment in Guilford County is that there has been a wholesale exit of manufacturing jobs over the last several decades.
Contreras told commissioners that the program in the works gets employers to say to students that, once they complete high school, those students will be first in line for open positions. She said the program had been successful in New York and now school officials are exploring how best to implement the program here.
“We also started it on health careers with a local hospital where they had shortages,” she said of her time heading up the Syracuse school system before taking a job as the head of Guilford County Schools last summer.
“We are thinking about public safety schools where you can grow people who can take jobs in computer forensics and cyber-security,” she said. “This region runs number two in the nation in terms of technology jobs. We must make sure students are prepared so that we don’t have to call upon folks from outside of the state to take jobs that are right here in the triad region.”
Contreras is clearly interested in the workforce initiative for the well-being and employability of the students, but area economic development officials are focused on workforce development as a draw for new businesses. They say a skilled and well-trained workforce is essential for attracting businesses to the coming aviation megasite at Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA) or the Greensboro-Randolph County megasite.
A lot of local leaders are putting a good deal of faith into the Greensboro-Randolph County megasite, but currently it is just a very large empty field in Randolph County. Also, though the site is targeting certain industry sectors, it is not now known what companies if any will locate there in five years or eight years, so it’s quite a task to adequately match up today’s education with those future job prospects.
PTIA Airport Executive Director Kevin Baker said he’s constantly stressing the need for new aviation workers in this area. He said the airport’s collaboration with Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) has been invaluable in convincing aviation companies to locate at PTIA, and to expand there as well.
“For what we do at the airport, GTCC is the crown jewel,” Baker said.
Baker said that when he and others are attempting to recruit companies, one of the first questions is whether a qualified workforce is available. He said one huge benefit for this area is the ability to train workers in whatever specialty is needed.
“GTCC is the way we get that,” Baker said.
He said that GTCC works closely with aircraft companies to train people on the airport grounds. Baker said that, when HondaJet needed workers skilled in making a particular type of fuselage, GTCC produced a team of workers with that specific skill.
“You can’t put a price on that,” he said.
Workforce development issues and strategies completely dominated the discussion at a large meeting recently between the Leadership Group of the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA) and the GCEDA Business Advisory Council.
The two boards meet four times a year and that meeting brought together 22 business leaders, elected officials, economic development staff and others focused on promoting economic growth in Guilford County.
At the meeting, held at GTCC’s Cameron Campus in Colfax, GTCC President Randy Parker, who sits on the Business Advisory Council, spoke on the role of the community college’s coming Center for Advanced Manufacturing – a giant facility in the works on High Point Road next to GTCC’s Jamestown Campus. That manufacturing training center, which will house a transportation and welding program and will help train workers needed in the aviation and automobile industry and in others sectors where the county is focusing it’s business recruitment efforts.
Parker said that center will be training students either late this year or early next year. He also said GTCC may get a grant for some of the machinery and tools at the facility.
“We have the potential of $800,000 from the Golden Leaf Foundation,” Parker said. “So that’s moving along and supports a lot of the needs.”
Once that facility is open, it will dramatically increase the county’s ability to train workers.
“The building is so big, we call it a campus now – it’s six acres under roof,” Parker said.
He said the center will train workers for HAECO Americas’ expansion at PTIA.
“HAECO is adding their big hanger and is going to be adding 500 employees or 600 employees for that operation,” Parker said. “We met with them last week to start the training program for that. They are going to need somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 sheet metal workers on Jan. 1, , so we are trying to figure out how to do that. We’ll be working with them and trying to get all of their training needs met so that, when the hanger is open and ready to go, we’ll be ready.”
The large group of economic development officials is expected to go on a tour of the facility toward the end of May.
Parker said the new advanced manufacturing center will double the school’s welding capacity and triple the machining capacity.
“Right now on both welding and machines we’re so tight you can’t hardly walk around in the rooms because you’ve got so many pieces of equipment in such a small space, and they pretty much are hooked up night and day for our curriculum students,” he said.
According to Parker, one key is that the center will be able to individualize the training to match specific company needs.
Parker said GTCC is also working with High Point officials to beef up the furniture industry workforce since those workers are more in demand.
He said companies come in and ask for workers with specialized skills.
“We’ll need to have a place where we can say, ‘We can have that training,’ and we can start it because we’ll have the space.” Parker said. “It does give us the capacity to do really neat things.”
Logistics and distribution is a growing industry in the county so there’s also an effort to increase the number of truck drivers. R&R Transportation Inc. President Karl Robinson, a member of the advisory council, spoke at the meeting on those increasing needs.
“We still have a shortage of drivers locally,” he said. “We’ve made a partnership for a nonprofit to put drivers in the truck driving school in Thomasville. We’re also in talks with them to move a truck driving school to Guilford County.”
Lillian Plummer, executive director of the Workforce Development Board in Guilford County, and a member of the Business Advisory Council, said she and others were working to pull together an “Apprenticeship Summit” that would enhance opportunities for those adults and teenagers working as apprentices to learn trades. Plummer said that will likely happen at the end of March.