McDowell Technical Community College (MTCC), Isothermal Community College (ICC), Foothills Workforce Development Board and Centro Unido Latino Americano launched a collaborative workforce development initiative today to help address the regional labor shortage in McDowell, Rutherford and Polk counties in western North Carolina. The project will be funded by a $1.498 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Opportunities in Rural Communities (WORC) program.
The project, “Foothills Forward: Boosting Prosperity Through Inclusive Workforce Development,” will recruit and serve economically disadvantaged individuals, specifically minority populations with high unemployment rates, those with substance abuse disorders, and those previously incarcerated, which is a special emphasis of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). ARC and the Delta Regional Authority are workforce development partners with the U.S. Department of Labor. During this funding cycle, 23 organizations received awards totaling $29.175 million to provide employment and training services to regional and local workforces.
“We must collaborate regionally to build the talent pipeline and help increase productivity for our employer partners,” said Dr. Brian S. Merritt, MTCC President. As administrative agent for the WORC grant, officials from McDowell Tech will lead the project.
Within the Foothills region, unemployment rates for Black and Latino citizens are double or triple the overall unemployment rate for all workers. The “Foothills Forward” partners will connect Black and Latino residents and other traditionally underserved residents with necessary education and high-demand training opportunities, expanded work-based learning and apprenticeship opportunities, support services and financial assistance based on individual needs. As participants progress through training, they will then receive career and job placement services to help them enter or re-enter the workforce.
“We are excited about the opportunities this will create in our communities,” said Dr. Margaret Annunziata, Isothermal’s president. “We are appreciative of all of the partners involved and of the supportive vision of the Department of Labor for helping us realize this possibility.”
As part of the WORC grant, both McDowell Tech and Isothermal will receive funds to add high-tech instructional simulation equipment in health care, manufacturing and construction trades programs, offering more hands-on learning experiences to project participants, both in the classroom and in labs. Work-based learning staff will also be added at both colleges to work with local and regional employers to assist them in creating on-the-job training opportunities for students enrolled at both colleges.
Centro Unido Latino Americano (CULA), a non-profit organization serving the LatinX community, will be an integral part of this project, connecting Hispanic and Latino communities in the Foothills region with training and education offered by McDowell Tech and Isothermal, as well as services provided by other local agencies. Local unemployment for Latino residents in the three counties served by the grant typically ranges from 10.4 to 15.2%.
CULA will hire a Latino Workforce Coordinator to recruit individuals to participate in English Language Acquisition classes (ELA/ESL), high school equivalency and career training opportunities. This individual will also serve as a bridge to the employer community and to provide translation services for job placements. He or she will also establish agreements with employers that identify minimum job requirements and barriers to long-term employment and will work to help eliminate some of those barriers.
“By working collaboratively to systemically address the needs of our residents,” said Annunziata, “we look forward to seeing a significant increase in completion of valuable workforce credentials in healthcare, manufacturing and construction trades.”
David Lee, the Director of the Foothills Workforce Development Board, agrees. “We are thrilled to be a partner in this important project,” he said. “We look forward to assisting our traditionally underserved workforce and helping them get into jobs and careers. The Foothills Workforce Development Board oversees the local NC Works Center that provides career counseling, job referrals, testing and training services, and resume-writing assistance. The WORC grant will hire a Case Manager to help enroll eligible participants into federal workforce programs, assist with Department of Labor reporting and provide supportive services to participants.
“I appreciate the initiative these partners have taken, particularly the community colleges, to address sustainability in the workforce for our region,” said Representative Dudley Greene, who represents District 85 (McDowell, Avery and Mitchell) in the NC General Assembly. “Especially during the pandemic, it has been highlighted how important a strong workforce is for our economy, and I think this is going to open up some wonderful opportunities for our region.”
The Foothills Forward project anticipates engaging 923 participants in workforce training over a three-year period, including at least 100 Hispanic and Latino workers, helping them achieve new or improved employment opportunities throughout the region.
“We are thrilled the Department of Labor has provided this opportunity to collaborate across the Foothills region to address historically high unemployment rates and poverty levels within our underserved populations,” said Merritt. “If we are to achieve economic prosperity throughout this region, it is imperative we adopt a more inclusive approach to workforce training, and this collaboration is a first, major step in that direction,” he said.
Front row: Margarita Ramirez, Executive Director of Centro Unido Latino Americano; Rep. Dudley Greene, 85th district, NC House; Robin Ramsey, Field Representative, U.S. Senator Richard Burr; and Sarah Morse, Grants Coordinator, Isothermal Community College. Second row: Stacy Buff, Dean of Career and Technical Education, McDowell Technical Community College; Chuck Abernathy, Executive Director, McDowell Economic Development Association; David Lee, Director, Foothills Workforce Development Board; Dr. Margaret Annunziato, President, Isothermal Community College; Dr. Brian S. Merritt, President, McDowell Technical Community College; Rob Flannery, Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeship Coordinator, McDowell Technical Community College; and Dr. Thad Harrill, Vice-President, Isothermal Community College.