MARSHALL – For the first time since the 2019-20 semester, A-BTech’s Madison campus plans to be open for in-person classes when the semester starts Aug. 23.
The campus will even be unveiling a new academic program for the occasion.
The News Record spoke with Fairley Patton, executive director of student advising, and Gene Loflin, associate vice president for instruction, through a Zoom conference July 21.
According to Patton, the campus’s focus on providing students opportunities through its career and technical education (CTE) component is as important as ever.
“We’ve had a very successful partnership with Madison High School in many areas,” Patton said. “One area partnership that they have is manufacturing at Madison High. It provides students not only with high school CTE and college courses, but also hands-on work-based learning opportunities.”
The college has partnered with industries such as Advanced Superabrasives (ASI), a Mars Hill-based manufacturer of diamond grinding wheels.
Beginning this fall semester, though, the campus will roll out its agribusiness program.
“What we were looking for is finding pathways that lead to high-demand and high-wage careers in the area,” Patton said. “Of course, agriculture is huge in Madison County. The agribusiness program is going to provide students with the opportunity to earn stackable credentials that will eventually lead to an (associate degree) in agribusiness technology, which will allow them to prepare for a high-demand career in Madison County.”
Patton said the campus team has made a conscious attempt to make sure its graduates come back to work in the county.
“I think it’s focusing on the industry in our area – partnering with them, finding out what the needs are – so that we can provide training opportunities for students to be able to stay in Madison County,” she said. “We have to find training opportunities for the work that’s in Madison County.”
In Loflin’s opinion, graduates’ process of choosing whether to come home or work elsewhere is one that happens organically.
“I think it’s giving kids the options of choosing where they want to be,” he said. “I will tell you that when I was a teenager, my goal was to get out of North Carolina as quiclky as I could, and see the world, and I did just that. But here I am back again because I got the skills and I came back when I was ready to come back.
“What we need to do is give them the skillsets. Yes, they may leave for a while, but hopefully they’ll remember how much they love Madison County. When they come back, they’ll bring back even more skills to us. Maybe they bring back the ideas and create the new industries that build a base for Madison County.”
Students have no shortage from which to learn these skills. The college’s Career and College Promise Program offers qualified high school juniors and seniors opportunities to accelerate completion of college certificates, diplomas and associate degrees.
“The key is to get the word out to parents that there are multiple opportunities for their children to earn college credit in high school toward a good-paying career,” Loflin said. “We provide clear pathways for the students, so that they do have this ability to explore possible careers, find those that most interest them and fit their talents and skills, and then provide them and their parents very clear pathways of what they can take toward their high school graduation, and what will give them college credit.
“We continue to work especially with Madison County Schools because you only have the two high schools. We have really tried to build some strong dual-enrollment opportunities, including with (Madison High’s) machining program.”
Patton said advancements in technology have shaped the discussion surrounding CTE fields such as manufacturing.
“There’s a misconception around advanced manufacturing, the manufacturing industry as a whole, that those jobs were dirty,” she said. “That’s just not the case anymore. Advanced manufacturing is clean, and automated, and in many cases using robots, and usually in a climate-controlled environment instead of a hot, sweaty environment. With the significant enhancements in technology and automation, it’s a very different experience than 15, 20 or 30 years ago.”
Correspondingly, CTE fields are generating more interest than in the past, Patton said.
“I think the pandemic is bringing (increased interest) out in a more pronounced way,” she said. “There’s a need for a highly-skilled workforce in a lot of areas that perhaps we didn’t recognize before. Nursing is at the forefront of that, for sure, but advanced manufacturing has been crucial in creating PPE that was necessary for combatting a pandemic.”
“But more than anything, I think experiencing CTE in high school is a great way for students to just test-drive a career before spending all that money on additional training after high school.”
State’s emphasis on CTE
While the college’s Madison County campus is increasingly pivoting towards bringing more attention to CTE programs, the state maintains a similar strategic goal of encouraging more access to postsecondary opportunities.
In Feb. 2019, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction released its “#NC2030” campaign, a comprehensive plan aimed at making North Carolina public schools the best place to learn and teach by 2030.
A facet of the plan is to expose and prepare students for careers in skilled trades, military, and other high-demand career fields through the SkillsUSA Career Essentials program, according to the DPI website.
Another goal is to prepare middle and high school students for high-tech careers by expanding computer science courses and continuing coding and robotics grants.
In Madison County, that expansion begins with GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a national college access initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education, aimed at increasing the number of low income students enrolled at and succeeding in postsecondary education.
“GEAR UP allows kids to start thinking about their future,” Loflin said. “That’s the motivator to stay on track in school and graduate and persist. GEAR UP is going to provide an opportunity for Madison County kids to begin exploring their futures when they’re in middle school, and begin taking action while they’re in middle school and high school for a future that will create the kind of life they’re hoping for.”
Patton said the program is crucial to the Madison campus’ transformation, as it will allow campus officials and workforce development team members to work with Madison County School students starting in middle school.
“We have focused so much on high school-aged students in our partnership through dual enrollment,” she said. “The earlier we can get that message out about opportunities for parents, families and students, that’s just going to be crucial for the success of this.
“If they have a better understanding going into high school of what they might want to do, they’ll spend less time trying to figure out what that is. They’ll have a path that helps them get where they need to be, and they won’t waste time, energy and money – they’re going to have a focus.”