SANFORD - There's a long and cherished history of manufacturing all across The Old North State. High Point is known worldwide for furniture. Then, there's a crescent-shaped region running through western North Carolina that has long been a national center for textiles.
The Central Carolina area also has a strong history of manufacturing, but things are a little different. The area's real claim to fame is its strikingly diverse industrial base. And one reason so many different manufacturers have found success here is the assistance they receive from Central Carolina Community College.
"We're serving only three counties, but in those three counties we have just about everything," says CCCC Director of Industry Services Cathy Swindell, who has been consulting with local industry for decades. "Life sciences is a particularly strong and growing segment right now. But we also have textiles, auto parts, electronics, medical devices, machine fabrication and much more. Really, we're a snapshot of manufacturing across the entire state."
What the college provides depends on what the companies need to move forward. Much of that involves workforce training -- giving entry-level employees the skills they need once they're hired or helping existing employees develop new skills when they change jobs or move into supervisory positions that require an additional skill set.
After initial months of uncertainty during the pandemic, business is heating up once again -- for companies and the college. Swindell says many companies that made capital improvements or lost employees over the last year are now busy hiring and training. That means she has been working to make sure employees can hit the ground running.
Most company requests can be handled entirely locally with the college drawing on all sorts of resources -- from short, customized-training courses on the job site to longer traditional college courses in the classroom. CCCC even has worked with companies, public schools and state agencies to develop some nationally celebrated initiatives like the Caterpillar Welding Youth Apprenticeship Program.
"We can handle just about everything, for any industrial sector and no matter what the request may be," Swindell says. "But in those rare cases when companies need something we don't already have the expertise to do locally, we can use our contacts and resources across the state to find good options and the right people to help our local industry."
Though industrial training has been a focus for years, CCCC continues to find innovative ways to serve local companies, even as the manufacturing landscape changes.
Plans have been announced to establish a new advanced manufacturing training center in the former Magneti Marelli facility adjacent to CCCC's Lee Main Campus. Though details about the center are still being developed, it will provide a centralized location for worker training and incubator space for new companies coming into the area as they develop new facilities and build their workforce.
Margaret Roberton, CCCC's Vice President for Workforce Development, sees the new advanced manufacturing center as a potential game-changer for local industry and economic development. "The vision of the new site is to develop a highly-skilled workforce responding to the demands of the region," she says. "This benefits our community in ensuring that individuals have the skills needed to enter into great jobs in our communities and support their families as well as supporting the health, growth and development of businesses within the region."
Another recent innovation is the Central Carolina Manufacturing Institute, an organization led by a coalition of top local manufacturers and run by the college. It was established to draw talented workers into manufacturing and help fill the need for more employees.
Swindell says career interest in manufacturing has steadily declined over recent years as people have come to believe the false notion that manufacturing is dying. In fact, manufacturing is trending in the opposite direction. Facilities have become more contemporary and the work more technically sophisticated. And manufacturing needs quality people.
"Manufacturing has been changing, but it's actually a thriving sector and a lucrative career path," Swindell says. "It's not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. I always tell students that, regardless of what you want for a career, you can find a good job in manufacturing."
The Central Carolina Manufacturing Institute's initial offering, its Certified Production Technician program, has been designed by industry leaders to fill their specific needs. It gives entry-level workers the essential skills they need to succeed -- including safety, quality assurance, manufacturing processes and maintenance awareness.
Participants are guaranteed job interviews, full scholarships are available and, when students pass a national certification exam, they leave the institute with a recognized credential they can take anywhere in the country.
Roberton says the Central Carolina Manufacturing Institute's strength is understanding what is happening in their companies and in the community -- and then finding ways to develop the kind of employees they are wanting to hire.
"The region has a wealth of great manufacturing companies across a spectrum of manufacturing," she says. "Many community members don't realize the depth of opportunities available not just for their first job but the career pathways available. We are working on plans to provide more insight into manufacturing as a career pathway and the wide variety of options available to the community."
Manufacturing remains a strong and thriving economic sector in the Central Carolina area, with a large and diverse set of companies providing a wide array of products -- and most of those companies are looking for quality workers. Nobody can be certain where any particular industry is headed, but one thing is certain: Central Carolina Community College will be there with local companies along the journey to help them adapt, grow and thrive.
Central Carolina Community College has long provided workforce training for local industry and manufacturing.