Something in North Carolina the envy of Massachusetts?

Yes, indeed – our Community College system.

On the first day of the Emerging Issues Forum, Eric Nakajima, assistant secretary for Innovation Policy as part of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development for the State of Massachusetts, said his state envied the community college system of North Carolina.

This is big news for a state that is looking up to Boston for the competition for top states in Biotechnology and information Technology.

On Tuesday, the audience heard about the great assets of the North Carolina system from Scott Ralls, President of the North Carolina Community College System and Gary Green of Forsyth Tech in Winston Salem. But they weren’t alone.

In a panel that included an executive from Siemens, the President of the National Association of Manufacturers and the VP and General Manager of Biogen Idec, everyone talked about the importance of the community college system to the business sector.

Top Priority: Talent

One thing was very clear to the audience of over 1,000 people of government officials, academics and corporate executives, talent is the top priority for the private sector to grow in industries that North Carolina wants.

Siemens has become a model for apprenticeship in the United States. According to executive Amogh Bhonde, Siemens works with high school students from Olympic High School in Charlotte and work with Central Piedmont Community College. By the time the students have completed the program at CPCC, the graduate with an associate’s degree with no student debt to pay off. Siemens is preparing these students for jobs in the energy industry which is shifting from coal and nuclear power plants to gas turbine powered plants with the increase in production of natural gas and lower costs.

In the State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama cited Siemens and its job creation efforts while also noting a North Carolina connection.

“America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids,” the President said.

“The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs. And I know that you want these job-creating projects in your districts. I’ve seen you all at the ribbon-cuttings.”

A theme of this conference was that manufacturing has changed from the smoggy images of large manufacturing plants to the niche of advanced manufacturing. According to Jennifer McNelly, President, the Manufacturing Institute, National Association of Manufacturers, 80 percent of the manufacturers in US are small and medium businesses.

The audience voted during the conference that changing the image of manufacturing was necessary to get a younger demographic interested in manufacturing as a career.

Replacing Aging Work Force

Bhonde from Siemens expressed his concern for the aging statistics of his work force. Some of Siemens employees have been working at his company for over 40 years and are about to retire with all of that experience that needs to be passed on to the next generation of employees. Siemens can count on the fact that 30-40 students are going through the welding program at one of the three local community colleges.

 Green with Forsyth Tech in Winston-Salem commented that the challenge of the community college system is to be able to scale with the needs of the private sector. There needs to be a partnership with the private sector to know how many employees will be needed and when and with what skills to help economic growth.

Ralls laid out one of the problems in the high school system that discourages students from considering manufacturing. If a student is trying to get into a high profile university, that student will pursue Advanced Placement classes that may give a 5.0 for an A in the class. While that student may get an A in an AP class for European History, the same student may actually enjoy a shop class to learn a technical skill, but the shop class will not allow for a 5.0 AP to highlight a college application.

Ralls runs the Community College System for North Carolina that comprises of 58 community colleges, one of the largest systems in the US. The NC system has become a model across the nation and is recognized internationally.

Global Competition

In a post panel interview, WRAL Tech Wire interviewed Ralls and Green about the future of workforce development within the community college system.

When asked about the Massachusetts comment, Rolls said that “North Carolina has been a model for other neighboring states for the last 50 years, but now other countries are catching up. During a recent international recruiting trip in Germany, the North Carolina group saw commercials from the United Arab Emirates for workforce training assets to attract companies to that country. The challenge is to now stay ahead of the global competition.”

When asked about the role of nanotechnology in the community college system, Green said” Nano is evolving as a discipline and application of advanced materials and an enabling technology for textiles and coatings.” Green also said” Nano is not an industry where one day you will see a page full of nano industry jobs, but you will see nano is embedded in other industries.”

According to Green and Ralls, Forsyth Tech is the only of the 58 North Carolina schools to have a focus on nanotechnology. Both President Obama and the Gates Foundation have honored the work of Forsyth Tech as a model for the nano and biotech workforce training.

Just one example of the type of taltent the private sector wants – and needs. 

Innovation Prize Winners

Speaking of future talent … 

The Emerging Issues forum attendees voted to pick two Innovation Prize winners – one for colleges, another for high schools.

No Sweat from UNC Chapel Hill won the college award

The Sirocco Computer Cleaner from North Vance High School took the high school honor.