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The Career Trifecta: Training, Tuition-Free, and Strong Support

Without a doubt, there’s no better time than now to be looking for a job in McDowell County and Western North Carolina. Career opportunities are plentiful, and for those looking for the best jobs, best growth potential and quick entry into the workforce, McDowell Technical Community College has engineered a trifecta for career success with the college’s workforce development programs, tuition-free college, and enhanced support from our workforce partners.

Miriam Juarez
Thomas Champ

“What is even better,” said Stacy Buff, Dean of Career and Technical Education, “is that most of our work-based learning and training programs offer our students an opportunity to earn an hourly paycheck for time that they spend with an employer while learning their craft. This removes the sometimes significant financial barrier that has kept some people from entering a new training program in the past. In each of these programs, students attend classes at the college for part of the workweek and spend the remainder of the week with an employer.”

To market and recruit students to these programs and to support and guide them to success, the college and a respected partner, Centro Unido Latino Americano (CULA), have both hired new employees to help with these goals. Thomas Champ, who previously worked in McDowell Tech’s Career and College Readiness program, is the college’s new Work-Based Learning Coordinator, and Miriam Juarez is the new Workforce Coordinator with Centro Unido.

Work-based learning components are currently available in degree programs such as Nursing, Emergency Medical Science, Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Technology, Applied Engineering Technology, Welding, Mechatronics and more. The college’s current thrust of efforts are now aimed at short-term training that requires only a few months for an individual to earn marketable skills in high-demand careers.

While the college has leveraged a number of federal and state grants and private funds to offer tuition-free college to incoming students, the increase in work-based learning programs has begun to accelerate, in large part, due to a $1.498M federal Workforce Opportunities for Rural Communities (WORC) grant from the United States Department of Labor. Both Juarez and Champ were hired to facilitate the WORC grant efforts in collaboration with the Foothills Workforce Development Board and training partner, Isothermal Community College.

WORC grant participants may choose to participate in work-based learning opportunities, internships, apprenticeships and job shadowing in their educational plan in healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and construction trades programs. Participants will also work with WORC staff to co-enroll with the NCWorks Online system and receive support from a WORC Caseworker employed by the Foothills Workforce Development Board to potentially become eligible for federal WIOA support services and financial support.

“We want our students to learn, gain valuable experience and develop skills that will lead to more permanent skilled and semi-skilled positions around the county and throughout the region,” said Buff. “This also helps fulfill our mission to be the state’s job engine for businesses and industries. We are doing our best to create business and industry leaders, both in management and skilled vocations.”

One of the newest entries to the work-based learning lineup is the college’s Construction Trades Academy. Chris Saxton, a U.S. Army veteran with a degree in Carpentry who previously worked in bridge building with Ford Miller at Miller Engineering, will lead the Construction Trades Academy. Saxton also has recent experience building the increasingly popular “tiny houses” at a startup facility in Morganton.

In addition to classroom instruction, participants in the Construction Trades Academy, which begins February 21st, will work off-site building new housing units for low-income residents in McDowell and Rutherford and will earn an hourly wage while they are doing so. Over time, they will also earn three nationally-recognized credentials to assist them in future employment efforts.

Ms. Juarez, the new Workforce Coordinator at CULA, has developed a Spanish-language brochure to assist in recruiting Hispanic and Latino students to the program and is cooperating with Thomas Champ and MTCC staff to recruit and enroll students.

The college is also working with small businesses and other community partners to build-out an array of apprenticeships and work-based learning programs, including McDowell County Schools, the McDowell Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber’s member businesses. Buff, Dean of Career and Technical Education, and Champ are available to assist any business or industry partner with an interest in initiating a work-based learning, apprenticeship or internship opportunity with a curriculum or continuing education program.

Baxter Healthcare, Continental, and Morris Heating and Air are just a few of the businesses and industry leaders who have accepted the apprenticeship challenge. Morris Heating & Cooling, for example, has five Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology students who are completing apprenticeships at the company while studying in the college’s HVAC program at night.

Similarly, McDowell County Public Schools, McDowell Tech and the McDowell Pipeline Committee are working to build stronger relationships with high school students to identify strengths and interests earlier in a student’s high school career and to steer them into appropriate vocational tracks and pre-apprenticeships. Ultimately, each partner shares the same goal—helping students fine-tune their interests, make wise career decisions and be successful at what they choose to do to earn a living over a lifetime.

“With the help of our partners, we are creating one of the most robust, short-term career training initiatives this community has ever seen,” said Dr. Brian S. Merritt, MTCC President. “The combination of strong partners providing a network of support for our students, tuition-free college, and quality workforce training programs truly creates a trifecta for jobseekers to work towards careers with family-sustaining wages and the chance to increase their lifetime earnings.”

To learn more about work-based learning programs or to enroll in the Construction Trades Academy, Thomas Champ at 659-0454 or Miriam Juarez at 652-0727 or 828-803-8015 (c).

Caption for photos:


Thomas Champ is the MTCC’s new Work-Based Learning Coordinator, and Miriam Juarez is the new Workforce Coordinator with Centro Unido Latino Americano. Both were hired to help facilitate efforts of a $1.498M federal Workforce Opportunities for Rural Communities (WORC) grant from the United States Department of Labor. 

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