How to Turn a Community College Into an Economic Engine
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Gary Green, the president of Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is going to retire at the end of this year, and while that may not seem like a particularly noteworthy event, I think it is. When Green arrived in July 2001, Forsyth Tech ran on the same model as most of the country’s 1,300-plus community colleges. Eighty percent of its programs were geared toward “transfers” — that is, offering traditional courses in English, history and the like that would help students get into four-year universities after they gained their associate degree. And like most community colleges, its success rate was middling, at best.
Today, Forsyth Tech is one of the economic engines of Winston-Salem. It offers programs in advanced machining, cybersecurity, medical technologies and welding. Its students graduate with the skills that manufacturers and other local employers most need. They land jobs that can start at up to $60,000 a year. Many of the area’s companies are actively involved in devising the curriculum. Today, only 20 percent of the school’s programs are oriented toward transfers. The other 80 percent teach the skills that will allow Forsyth students to make a good middle-class living without a four-year college degree.
Forsyth Tech under Green has become an exemplar of what a community college ought to be. Let me rephrase that: In this era when even blue-collar labor requires knowledge and training to make a decent wage, it is what community colleges have to be. There are other schools that do what Forsyth Tech does — among them East Mississippi Community College, Lone Star College in Texas, and Macomb Community College in Michigan — but they are still a woeful minority. So I decided to go to Winston-Salem to ask Green how he had transformed Forsyth Tech, and what it would take for the rest of the country to follow suit.
In 2001, when Green moved to Winston-Salem from Alabama, where he had headed Calhoun Community College, the economy was in trouble. The area had relied on the furniture and textile industries, but they were leaving for China and Mexico. Another key industry, tobacco, was in decline as fewer people smoked. “We were desperate,” said Rachel Desmarais, Forsyth Tech’s chief operating officer.
What Winston-Salem did have was the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, an important academic hospital. Green struck an alliance: Forsyth Tech would start a biotech program, and the hospital would be involved in devising a curriculum that would train students to meet its needs. Forsyth Tech was soon supplying the medical center with lab technicians and other workers.
Green discovered that most local manufacturers would not hire graduates from Forsyth Tech’s welding program. So he began visiting them, to find out what the deficiencies were, and revamped and modernized the welding program — again, with industry’s help. He did the same with advanced machinery. He formed advisory councils in various disciplines, made up primarily of local employers, so that the school could keep up with the latest trends and technological advances.
A key moment came in 2005, when Dell Technologies Inc. added Winston-Salem to a shortlist of cities for a new facility to make desktop computers. North Carolina, in its incentive package, said it would give Forsyth Tech money to train workers for the new plant. Once the city landed Dell, Forsyth handed over office space in its building for Dell executives to use while its plant was being built, and ran a crash course to train the employees Dell was hiring. Once the plant was up and running, it offered courses — devised with Dell’s input — that trained students to work at the plant.
Although Dell shut the factory after four years — as customers abandoned desktops for laptops — Winston-Salem has successfully used the Dell model to lure other companies. In 2011, for instance, the city successfully landed a new Caterpillar Inc. factory with Forsyth Tech’s involvement as a key factor.
When Green met with Caterpillar executives to lay out what the school could do, what was supposed to be a 20-minute meeting stretched on for hours. The executives canceled other meetings to go to the school and inspect its programs. “We laid out our capability in machining, in welding, in mechanical engineering and in tech industrial systems,” Green said. When Caterpillar announced that it had chosen Winston-Salem, the company specifically pointed to Forsyth Tech’s ability to create a pipeline of well-trained workers.
There is a lot of discussion in the U.S. about the “skills gap,” and a lot of rhetoric about what to do about it. According to the U.S. Labor Department, more than 6.5 million jobs are going unfilled because employers can’t find workers with the skills they need. At the same time, there is worry that for people without college degrees, good middle-class jobs are becoming scarce as manufacturing continues to move abroad.
The model that Green instituted at Forsyth Tech potentially solves both problems. His aggressiveness in seeking out companies and asking what skills they need is really the only way we’re ever going to close the skills gap. And those unfilled jobs are precisely the ones that can provide a middle-class living.
“There are a million and a half openings in cybersecurity,” said Green as we toured the school’s computer training department. As we walked past a classroom that specialized in training to gain a certificate as a Microsoft computer specialist, I saw a poster that listed average salaries of $48,000 to $108,000, depending on the level of training. It also noted that over the next decade, 77 percent of all jobs will require some level of technical skill.
So why isn’t this being done all over the U.S.? One reason is funding; federal grants are much more generous to four-year research universities than they are to community colleges. And most students in community colleges are poor enough to need Pell grants to pay for tuition. Green does as much fundraising from private sources as any university president.
But another reason is that too many community colleges are resistant to transforming themselves into what they perceive as trade schools. They view what Forsyth Tech does as a less prestigious form of education. They don’t want to interact with industry. And their faculty is geared toward teaching English, not welding. That only 14 percent of students who enter community college graduate from a four-year university within six years is a fact that tends to get glossed over.
Not long ago, Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, tried to convince the community colleges in his state to adopt the Forsyth Tech model. He was met with fierce resistance — the schools were far more interested in transforming themselves into four-year colleges than into schools that trained students for middle-class jobs.
When he steps down in December, Green will be 67. But he’s still full of energy and enthusiasm for the kind of education Forsyth Tech provides. My hope is that he’ll spent at least the next few years spreading the gospel — that middle-class jobs are still attainable, and that community colleges offer the best route to landing them, if the schools are willing to change. Winston-Salem knows what a good community college can do. That’s something the rest of the country needs to learn.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”
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