Thursday morning Forsyth Technical College formally received a $15,000,000.00 grant from the US Department of Labor as part of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community Career Training (TAACCCT) program. On hand to “deliver the check” was Deputy Secretary of Labor, Scott D. Harris, along with 12th District Congressman Mel Watt, Forsyth Tech president Dr. Gary Green, Russ Read of the BioNetwork at Forsyth Tech, and Phil Sugar CEO of Carolina Liquid Chemistries along with faculty students, and staff of Forsyth Tech.
Deputy Secretary Harris toured some of Forsyth Tech’s bio-technology classrooms. Speaking with Dr. Aju Lekwauwa (who teaches basic laboratory technique) Harris asked him if the students were up to their basic proficiencies in math, English and other core subjects when they come into his classroom. Dr. Lekwauwa confirmed that there are often deficiencies, but remarked that he is able to get students caught up quickly. “Yes, we have to make up deficiencies.” Dr. Lekwauwa said, “We work that into the curriculum so that students can catch up.”
In a conversation with CCD Dr. Lekwauwa pointed out that many of his students are adults who have already been in the workforce. “Some are retooling. Some were outsourced from other jobs and looking to expand their technical skills. Many of my students also have families, but the quickly are brought up to the appropriate skill level and pass on into the next level.”
While several students were working on a project, Deputy Secretary Harris approached them wearing his newly fitted lab coat and safety glasses. Christine Brown, Justin Garris, and Daniel Roberts explained their assignment to Harris and then the talk turned to employment advice. Harris pointed out to them that completing their studies at Forsyth Tech would be the first and largest step they would make toward career success. “The whole idea behind credentials is credibility. That is what a degree gives you when you talk to a prospective employer.” Harris told the students. New credentials that will be made possible by the TAACCCT grant will include certificates in core bio-sciences skills, core laboratory skills, core medical device skills, biomedical plastics, and environmental monitoring. As John Balchunas the Workforce Developement Director of the Education & Training Program of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center stated: “Bridging the skills gap, developing portable credentials and accelerating completion time for academic and professional programs is critical to enhancing the competitiveness of displaced workers seeking in-demand bio-sciences jobs.”
Harris asked North Stokes graduate and Forsyth Tech student, Daniel Roberts, what he wanted to do with his education. “I want to be a virologist”, Roberts answered. “I want to work with infectious diseases.” Harris wished Roberts the best then went to speak to other students.
CCD asked the students how they felt about all of the attention, financing, and effort being put into their school. “The more attention means more opportunities for jobs.” said Mount Tabor graduate Justin Garris. “That is the whole reason any of us are here… find a job.”
Harris then spent some time in the classrooms of Dr. Lucien Houenou and Dr. Alan Beard. Dr. Beard’s class was learning to count moth ovary cells. Dr. Beard pointed out that, “This is our first day in animal cell culture.” He also indicated that the cells students were cataloging were exactly the kinds of cells often used in industrial, bio-tech research.
Dr. Hounenou, himself, is an example of the high quality of Forsyth Tech’s faculty. Like professors at larger universities, Dr. Hounenou publishes peer reviewed articles in scientific journals and has recently applied for a Fulbright Scholarship.
“People understand the importance of bio-sciences going forward.” Russ Read of the BioNetwork at Forsyth Tech told CCD. Mr. Read pointed out that the only way a bio-tech industry will flourish in Winston-Salem will be because we have highly trained, highly skilled workers. “We have done a great job with the funding we’ve been given. Bio-technology is a difficult field. It has no room for compromise or mistakes. Bio-tech is pervasive and effects many aspects of our daily lives. The safety of our medicines, fuel, clothes, everything. Bio-technology has to be sharp and it requires high-quality workers.”
12th District Congressman Mel Watt(D) had high praise for Forsyth Tech’s administrators, faculty, and students in comments made before a small crowd gathered to recognize those who made the $15million TAACCCT grant possible. “We keep coming back here.” Congressman Watt said referring to visits from Presidents Bush and Obama. “It is because of what Forsyth Tech is doing that we keep coming back.” Watt pointed out that the grant is focused on re-training people who have previously lost jobs. “These grants will move skill levels and compensation to a higher level.”, Congressman Watt said while also pointing out that many of Forsyth Techs students have many challenges as they also seek to better themselves. “I’m just happy that this money is finding its way back into this community.”
Forsyth Tech president, Dr. Gary Green also focused on the fact that the TAACCCT grant money is targeted at training and re-training workers so that they might better their economic situations and that of their families. “Forsyth Tech began its commitment to workforce development 50 years ago” Dr. Green stated. “We still have machining, nursing, and mechanics, but now we also have bio and nanotechnology… Bio-tech and the life sciences are critical to our economic and workforce development.” Dr. Green told the audience that Forsyth Tech first got involved with biotechnology in 2002. “Since then we’ve grown from serving our community, to serving our state, and now to serving our nation… we are doing the important work of preparing people for the future… of giving them hope.”
Phil Shugart, the CEO of Carolina Liquid Chemistries put much of the work Forsyth Tech is doing in training a 21st Century work force into a historical perspective. “This region was totally dependent on tobacco several years ago, but that is gone.” Shugart pointed out that his family grew tobacco (and still does) in Yadkin County for over 200 years. Now Mr. Shugart is the CEO of a cutting edge company right here in Winston-Salem. Like the Shugart family’s economic story “Winston-Salem has shifted from a tobacco based economy to a biotechnology based economy.” Mr. Shugart remarked. From a business person’s perspective Shugart explained in simple terms what the TACCCT grant will mean to economic development in Winston-Salem and North Carolina. “This will create a one-stop shopping approach to hiring people. Good people make companies grow and this place puts out good people.”
Deputy Secretary Harris finished up with prepared comments keeping the focus on the reality that the $15million being awarded to Forsyth Tech goes straight into workforce/economic development. “Who would have known that the antidote for outsourcing was here all along.” Harris said before stating that the Department of Labor and the Obama Administration’s intention with the TAACCCT grants is to “in-source.”
“Skills development is the cutting edge of economic development.” Harris stated pointing out that it is the goal of the Department of Labor to train and place 2 million Americans into jobs through our community college system. “Never has it been more important for workers to continue their education beyond high-school. We are honored to be able to invest in you.”
After the presentation CCD was able to speak to Deputy Secretary Harris for a moment. We asked Harris how the federal government putting money and effort into economic development in Winston-Salem will not only help us locally (our economic challenges are larger than many areas of America), but help the nation’s economy over-all. “This is as true locally as it is in the nation as a whole.” Harris told CCD. “We have to create a pipeline of skilled workers. That will effect company’s decision about where to locate. One way to attract employers is with a highly skilled work force. That, in turn, supports local entrepreneurship. If a local start-up partners with the community college they can rely on skilled workers who will be ready for the job on day one.”
One North Carolina state representative, Winston-Salem’s Earline Parmon(D), was at today’s event. When CCD caught up with her and asked Ms. Parmon about the budget slashing of North Carolina’s General Assembly (particularly in relation to education funding) while at the same time lay-offs and out-sourcing over-seas are creating a need for North Carolina’s workers to re-train. Parmon pointed out that the TAACCCT grant was not an opportunity for the General Assembly to make even deeper cuts in education, particularly for community colleges. “”With the awarding of the $15 million it behooves us as a General Assembly not to cut funding in other areas because of the grant. Skills development is the cutting edge of economic development.”, Parmon stated reiterating what Deputy Secretary Harris had said.
When the excitement of today’s visit fades the administrators, faculty, and students will remain… as will the very real challenges of implementing the TAACCCT grant in a way that will maximize its benefit to the local, state, and national economy. Even with challenges ranging from the political down to the personal the folks at Forsyth Tech not only seem up to the task- they are absolutely thrilled about being given the opportunity.