A ready and able workforce is a cornerstone of Wilkes County's economic development efforts. Leading the charge is Wilkes Community College (WCC), which offers both career and curriculum-based programs with multiple pathways to employment as well as customized training for the region’s businesses.
“We pride ourselves on being highly flexible and responsive to the changing needs of an ever-changing economy,” says Chris Robinson, vice president, Workforce Development & Community Education, Wilkes Community College. “Workforce development is a key part of economic development, and the partnership between the college, local government, and our economic development partners is central to recruiting and retaining businesses in Wilkes County.”
For degree-seeking students, the college offers nearly three dozen associate’s degree programs that lead directly to employment opportunities.
“We are constantly examining our mix of curriculum programs to ensure that they are in line with the job openings in our service area,” Robinson says. “For example, our region has become a retirement destination … and we have recently seen increasing opportunities in health care and advanced manufacturing. In response, we have invested heavily in equipment and facilities in those two areas, developing state-of-the-art programs that provide students with the skills needed to be successful in their chosen field.
"We also have a strong college transfer program that offers the first two years of a four-year degree in a supportive environment that is very cost-effective.”
High Marks for Accessibility
Robinson says accessibility and affordability are major draws of Wilkes Community College.
“Wilkes Community College is quite simply the best education bargain around. Whether students are looking at our curriculum programs or a workforce development class to build a specific job skill, the cost is quite affordable. That is the first key to accessibility,” he says.
“We also recognize that working adults often need flexibility in meeting their educational goals. We offer a variety of online learning opportunities and many of our workforce development courses are offered at various locations throughout the county. In that way, we can bring the training to students rather than them having to come to us.”
Christina Cardwell, a chemistry supervisor at Wilkes Regional Medical Center began her career with an online class in phlebotomy at WCC.
“I started with a phlebotomy class in 2004 at Wilkes Community College. In 2005, I was hired by Wilkes Regional Medical Center and after working there for a few years, I realized there was so much more out there [in health care] I could do building on phlebotomy,” Cardwell says.
“I ended up going to another college to get my associate’s degree to become a medical lab technologist and worked my way up to my current position of chemistry lead supervisor, but that class became the basis for my whole career. Along the way, I took more classes online through Wilkes Community College that I can now apply toward a bachelor’s degree. Once I get my bachelor’s degree, I can do so much more.”
Filling the Labor Gaps
Robinson says WCC also works with local and regional businesses to help train and retrain the existing workforce.
“Our customized training programs, for example, provide both general and highly specialized classes that meet the specific needs of business and industry, often at no cost to the business or the student,” he says. “We have also recognized that there is a growing dearth of tradesmen in our community. To meet those needs, we have worked with employers to develop training in such areas as electricians, HVAC technicians and plumbers. These, too, are vital to the growth of the county and lead to good jobs for students.”
Wilkes Community College begins its workforce development efforts even before students graduate from high school, partnering with Wilkes County Schools to offer programs, such as Career and College Promise, a dual enrollment program that allows high school students to earn college credit. WCC is also home to the Wilkes Early College High School, an exclusive program that enables students to simultaneously earn both a high school and college degree.
“Ultimately, students have the opportunity to earn the diploma and degree – all at no tuition cost," Robinson says. "It’s another example of the close working relationship between Wilkes Community College and Wilkes County Schools.