Teaching on the front lines

Central Piedmont Community College’s partnerships with business paying dividends for students, companies

by Mark Zenow

HUNTERSVILLE – As the economy inches toward recovery, the Huntersville campus of Central Piedmont Community College is finding itself on the leading edge of that recovery by creating new partnerships between private companies to retrain the next generation of workers.

For 33 year-old Lucas Robertson, that means in another nine months he will complete coursework that will allow him to leave behind a career as a high school science teacher and begin a new vocation as a certified diesel and heavy machinery service technician.

If all goes according to plan, he’ll go straight from the classroom to a full-time job with Carolina Tractor, sales, service and repair center for Caterpillar construction equipment that’s located just a short drive from the campus.

Its all part of the college’s plan to partner with local companies to teach the next generation of workers. The college tailors classes to train students to work inside those companies. President Barack Obama recently heralded the school for this model during his State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress, saying programs like this would get Americans back to work.

Officials from the college and Carolina Tractor sat down nearly three years ago and created an academic program designed to address the company’s future employment needs, and created a program that would teach students skills that could be applied across the industry.

“Today’s equipment is much more complex than it was 10 or 20 years ago,” said Jim Malloy, Manager of Employee Development at Carolina Tractor.  “The machines being sold today are more sophisticated, with electronic and emission control systems that require a new generation of service and repair technicians.”

After two years of planning, Central Piedmont launched the Caterpillar-specific program in August of last year.  Robertson and 13 other students enrolled and Malloy expects many of them will end up working for Carolina Tractor.

Twelve months of classroom instruction are followed by an eight-week on-site internship, which allows both the student and employer to determine if each is a good fit for the other.

According to Malloy, at the end of the internship the parties have no obligation to one another and students are free to work for other companies, even if scholarship dollars from Carolina Tractor were used to fund the student’s education.

Serving students and business

“We want to be the leader in workforce development,” said Mary Vickers-Koch, the Dean of Business and Industry Learning at CPCC’s Merancas Campus.

She’s often on the front line when consultants or companies are looking at the area for relocation or expansion.

“We are very focused on what companies need, and that helps our students develop their real world skills,” Vickers-Koch said.

Jerry Broadway, Executive Director for Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corporation, works to recruit new business to the area.  He said the ability to deliver an educated workforce, familiar with a company’s specific technical needs, can be a deal maker.

“We always include a training component when speaking with company officials who are considering a move or expansion, to let them know the service is there and available,” he said.

Often, that training component is Central Piedmont’s campus.

He’s developed a close working relationship with the college’s officials, since first meeting them in 2006.

Vickers-Koch said the college creates customized courses around the specific needs of employers, when it makes sense.  Other times, the college simply opens its doors and allows businesses to bring their own trainers and employees onto campus, to use classrooms or labs.

“We can do whatever the company thinks is best,” she said.

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