Lawmakers study how to add seats to technical training programs

Community colleges want more funding for short-term certificate programs, arguing that the money will put more people on the job.

Students in the Electrical Lineman program at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute train for employment. Source: CCCTI

North Carolina community colleges depend on funding from the state legislature for the majority of their revenue. For several programs crucial to employers — in fields such as health care, construction, manufacturing and public safety — training programs are funded at a lower rate than traditional curriculum programs, simply because they award a certificate or credential, instead of a diploma. In a three-part series, North State Journal will look at the impact of this funding imbalance, and what is currently being done to solve it.

Part 1, April 4: What the funding imbalance means to community colleges in the state, and the results of a one-year pilot program that is increasing the funding for selected workforce training programs.

Part 2, April 11: How employers around the state, who are desperately seeking qualified candidates for many specialized jobs, would benefit from a change in the funding model.

Part 3, April 18: Will the state legislature provide parity in funding for noncredit and curriculum courses?

RALEIGH — As lawmakers from across the state prepare to return for May’s short legislative session, the question on many minds is how to bring jobs and income to their districts. Lately though, employers have been telling them that the pipeline for skilled, certified technical workers is too narrow and good-paying jobs are going unfilled across the state.

“We don’t have a highly skilled workforce — people that build, make things, that repair things — and now we are scurrying,” said Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), chair of the House Education Committee. “But our system has not yet caught up to the scurry. … We seem to have a plethora of people who can wear suits and sit behind a desk, and a dearth of people who can actually do those things.”

The state’s 57-campus North Carolina Community College System has long been known as the way to fill the void. N.C. is one of 22 states that partly fund community college classes, keeping costs down for students. Currently noncredit classes — many of which are short-term certificate job training classes like public safety, manufacturing, MRI techs and others — are funded 34 percent less per student by the state than curriculum classes like economics and grammar. The original intent of the model was to incentivize institutions toward promoting a general education, and two or four-year degrees. But economic times have changed.

“We want a better life for our kids, that’s the nature of humanity,” said Horn. “But we get this picture in our mind that better life means college degree, suit and tie, office and driving a fancy car and living in a fancy house. … Then we turn around and realize, ‘I need a plumber.’”

When the legislature convenes, they will hear from the State Board of Community Colleges, the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents and the North Carolina Association of Community College Trustees, all who are lobbying for equal funding for job training and certificate programs. They will present updates on the legislature’s $2 million pilot program that allowed 36 community colleges to fund the courses at a higher level. Schools competed for the money, taking it to invest in new equipment and more seats in programs like welding, HVAC, nurse’s aides and truck driving.

Students train for truck driving certification at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. Source: CCCTi

“We anticipate that as a result of those funds we are going to be able to train 800 more people to be employed in high-demand areas,” said Jennifer Haygood, president of the N.C. Community College System.

For example, Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute received for $124,000 in the pilot program and used it to expand truck driver training. The training program takes just eight weeks during the day or 16 for night classes. The average hiring salary right out of the training program is $40,000 to $50,000.

If the legislature gives the greenlight for parity in funding, Caldwell’s administrators plans 54 more seats to the nine-week electrical lineman training program as well. N.C. is estimated to need 1,500 new lineman a year over the next five years at a $40,000 starting salary. New seats could also be added to home health aide and nursing aide certificate programs, both of which require 177 hours of training, and graduates earn double the state minimum wage. Additional students for medical tech certificates could be funded, earning graduates $25 to $30 dollars an hour. Wake Tech plans to add a short-term cybersecurity certification program.

“What we are seeing is that, as we move forward, people are going to have to have a variety of skills and be willing to reskill as needed,” said Haygood. “That’s why this proposal, while yes, it is intended to address a short-term skills gap issue, it’s also part of a long-term strategy as the economy is evolving where people may have to, throughout their lives, come back and retrain. This would provide our colleges the resources they need to offer that continual opportunity.”

Community college administrators hope the promising numbers will convince lawmakers that equal funding yields a bigger workforce pipeline, more people participating in the job market and a broader tax base.

“I think lawmakers are generally positive — they are always working under constrained resources, but what we are hearing from lawmakers is that they are hearing the exact same thing that we are hearing, that employers have jobs that they cannot find skilled workforce to fill those jobs,” said Haygood. “What we are proposing is a way to increase our capacity and our ability to deliver that short-term workforce training so we can get people trained in a matter of weeks so that they can take these jobs.”

Horn says that budget numbers will probably come to lawmakers in the next two weeks, as the ask from community colleges starts to circulate through the legislative building. The system estimates that it would cost the state $16 million to fund the certificate programs at the rate equivalent to curriculum classes.

“That’s a lot of money, but in terms of the $14 billion we spend on education … it’s a rounding error,” said Horn. “But a couple million bucks can make a difference in how many electricians we turn out from our community college system.”

To Sen. Tom McGinnis (R-Scotland), the changing workforce demands of the economy mean its time to change they way they do business.

“They need short-term, vocational training practical application so they can get on the job,” he said. “They don’t need basket weaving and PE and the other things you would take in an academic platform — they don’t need extra math or sociology or English or the other things you would take. They need what is required to do the job, so they can go to work.”

The short legislative session will convene May 16.