“You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there,” is advice I received early in my career and a mantra I still carry today. Last year, I set a goal to visit all 58 community college campuses. With a couple of rescheduled visits due to Covid-related issues, I reached my goal on March 27, 2023.
When I set this goal, it had to be a meeting of substance located on a campus of the community college I was visiting. This meant putting boots on the ground, touring the campus, seeing programs at work, and meeting with college presidents and other faculty, staff, and students. With each visit, my focus was to listen and learn as much as possible. Golden LEAF and our community colleges work with rural communities to address the need for talent. This partnership is an ongoing relationship that we will continue to foster.
The community college campus tours helped me become more familiar with the opportunities and challenges across all of the 58 North Carolina campuses. Most of the 58 colleges have received funding from Golden LEAF for workforce preparedness. While I can read the reports of these funded projects, physically being at the place where it all happens provides a more complete picture and critical context.
Golden LEAF supports workforce projects that help close the skills gap and increase the pool of highly qualified individuals with skills aligned to North Carolina businesses’ current and future needs. We fund projects that demonstrate a market demand for skilled workers and aim at developing skill sets required by businesses looking to locate or expand in rural communities. Touring these campuses helped me see students reaching their goals for employment in high demand jobs.
College officials were able to talk about their workforce training gaps, whether it be equipment to serve growing industry demand or space renovation to allow for more workers to train. I always say that Golden LEAF wants to be in the conversation at the start of an idea for a project and not just contacted as it is time for funding. The Golden LEAF Board can fund certain aspects of a strategy, and if we are in the conversation early enough, we can work toward a “yes” for funding.
Throughout North Carolina, community college faculty and staff are working to meet the needs of their communities to build the economy and prepare the workforce of the future. Collaboration is a huge theme in finding innovative solutions to complex challenges including purchasing equipment, finding qualified staff to teach the programs, and promoting programs throughout a region. I am hearing and seeing more colleges work across service areas to reach more students and to fill quality, available jobs.
Another theme I am very aware of is the MyFutureNC goal to increase the credentials or postsecondary degrees of two million North Carolinians by 2030. This statewide goal is creating an opportunity for colleges to reach out to a different demographic. Colleges are focusing on enrolling more students in their 30s, 40s, and 50s to gain the talent, knowledge, and skills to help meet the needs of vast employer demand. While this is a challenge, it is also an opportunity for workers to reskill or upskill in a welcoming environment.
One of the ways Golden LEAF supports the MyFutureNC goal is through the Golden LEAF Scholarship Program. The Golden LEAF Community Colleges Scholarship is valued at up to $2,250 for curriculum students per school year. Students can receive up to $1,850 per school year who are enrolled in occupational programs. The great thing about the Golden LEAF Community College Scholarships is that awards can be applied toward tuition, fees, books, supplies at the community college where enrolled, as well as transportation, childcare expenses related to attending classes, and credential testing upon course completion. This scholarship provides students with the funds to focus on their skill-building in order to prepare them for the workforce.
The North Carolina Community College System colleges have many success stories. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see these programs reaching students to help grow our economy. While I may have completed my 58 college tour, we will continue to work together to move the economic needle in North Carolina. This is just the beginning. I look forward to seeing our workforce continue to grow and our state continue to prosper!