Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Many rural community colleges are stuck in a devastating catch-22.
To start new degree programs, community colleges typically must prove demand — that nearby employers will want to hire graduates with those skills.
However, employers are loath to come to an area that doesn’t already have a trained workforce.
The result in many rural areas is a stagnant economy, one that struggles to attract new businesses and ideas because its institutions can only offer training that caters to the industries already there.
That’s what played out at Virginia’s Patrick & Henry Community College. For example, there was high demand for physical therapy assistants. But creating a program to train them required having hired a faculty member three years in advance, an expensive proposition.
The college has since found a workaround: offering certification courses and other entrepreneurship training programs that don’t go through the same extensive approval process.
They are already seeing results: Workforce program enrollees in advanced manufacturing and other industries are up 44% since 2022, to 316 students. That’s significant for a school that had a full-time academic enrollment of 1,425 students this fall.
To be sure, Patrick & Henry isn’t the only community college working closely with local industry. But, over the years, its administration has pursued multiple strategies to make those connections.
“It used to be that, when industry prospects would come to a community like ours, they would want to know most about tax abatements. Now, their first, second, and third question is on talent. What’s the workforce look like?” says Greg Hodges, who was sworn in as the college’s president in April after serving as interim president since July 2021.
Hodges grew up in Virginia’s Henry County, home to Martinsville, the former “Sweatshirt Capital of the World.” It was gutted like so many other manufacturing cities in the South following the passage of free trade agreements like NAFTA in the mid-nineties.
He has had a firsthand view of the college’s evolution amid the region’s long period of economic turmoil, in which unemployment rose to as high as 25% in southwest Virginia before hovering above 15% for a decade.
“We have made a very concerted effort to partner with that industry base, so that we know what their needs are and can provide them,” says Hodges, who joined the college’s faculty in 2004 and served as a dean from 2010 to 2016.
Now, the local Chamber of Commerce and Patrick & Henry team up to pitch companies on the college’s ability to quickly spin up tailored workforce programs. Some of the offerings — like advanced manufacturing — are created so students can finish in just eight weeks.
Then, once new companies come to the area, the college can prove enough local demand to eventually tack on related degree programs too.
At the end of the day, Hodges says the community college has one central task: “Getting folks a J-O-B degree.”
The strategy seems to be working for not just the college, but also the community.
In early 2020, the Eastman Chemical Company, which was already the area’s largest employer, announced an expansion plan that added 50 new jobs to its Martinsville site.
“They needed training in advanced film manufacturing — the type used in windows and cell phones — so we very quickly stood up some training,” Hodges says.
A local hardwood flooring manufacturer, Ten Oaks, was impressed enough to expand its operations, adding a nearly $10 million facility in late 2021.
And that was on the heels of the region’s biggest coup, when German sink manufacturer Shok Industries chose Henry County as the home of its first U.S. manufacturing operation, bringing with it 355 new jobs.
Such successes don’t happen overnight. They often require changing not just policies, but also negative public perceptions of what is possible, such as the idea that these new advanced manufacturing jobs would be just as unstable as the old jobs were.
“Manufacturing was a dirty word in the community,” as Hodges told the Aspen Institute for its recent report on Rural Community College Excellence. “If you said it, you had to go wash your mouth out with soap.”
Hodges credits the foresight of his predecessor, Angeline Godwin, who led a number of initiatives, including an eight-week entrepreneurship bootcamp that has led to $30 million in local investments and created 45 small businesses since 2015. More than half of those are owned by people of color in an area where two-thirds of residents are white.
The college has also benefited from building a 56,000-square-foot mechatronics training facility several years ago. The facility has received national recognition and helped employers like Shok Industries feel more confident about coming to Henry County.
That advantage was useful when Hodges visited Berlin last year as part of a recruiting effort to bring another German business to Henry County.
“It was the last day of our tour, we were in this state of the art facility, and they wanted to show off this brand new piece of machinery. Only, it was in cellophane and had not been unwrapped yet,” Hodges recalls.
“The translator said, ‘I’d love to tell you what this is, but it’s just arrived, we don’t quite know how to utilize it.’ And I kind of stepped up and said, ‘Well, let me explain to you what it is, because I have it on my campus already, and our students are already being trained on it.’”
More Rural Higher Ed News
Education Department announces final cohorts for rural energy grants. You can view the final cohorts by downloading the FY 2023 MES from the REAP website and navigating to the “Eligibility – All LEAs” tab.
Join the American Indian College Fund’s virtual conference. The interactive, online event is for high school and college students, staff, faculty, and families alike and centers Native culture. While it started yesterday, you can still check out some of today and tomorrow’s programming here.