WILKESBORO (June 15, 2022) – Something remarkable is happening in Wilkes County.
First, with a goal to lift a generation out of poverty, Wilkes Community College has dramatically improved completion rates for its students over the past four years.
Second, an ardent new initiative will attempt to connect Wilkes graduates with high-paying jobs in the tech economy – jobs they can do from home in the hills of Wilkes, Alleghany and Ashe counties. Officials think the effort can serve as a national model for rural communities.
After adopting an ambitious strategic plan four years ago, “We’ve gone from a 25% completion rate to a 45% completion rate, which is absolutely astounding,” says Craig DeLucia, CEO of the Leonard G. Herring Family Foundation, which provided $2 million for the planning process.
A key element? Career coaches for students in the six high schools that feed the college. The schools have great guidance counselors, DeLucia says, but five years ago, each counselor had more than 400 students to advise.
Most of the college’s students are the first generation in their family to go to college, DeLucia says, so officials studied methods that work for first-generation students in rural areas across the country. The coaches get to know students, their hobbies and fields that both interest and don’t interest them.
Another help is North Carolina’s Career & College Promise – students can sample subjects and earn college credits for free while they’re still in high school.
With the credits earned in high school, “Now we can graduate students with a two-year associate degree 12 to 18 months after they’ve graduated high school and help them get out into the workforce,” DeLucia says.
The college also supplies wraparound services – help when life happens and makes school more of a challenge. Even before the current spike in gas prices, a student told Higher Ed Works how gas cards from the college are critical to helping her get to school.
As they put together these services, Wilkes officials also developed a notion that they could connect graduates with tech companies – but keep them home in Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany counties to do the work.
ENTER COVID-19. Telework. A remarkable broadband network in a rural community. And a new nonprofit called NC Tech Paths.
“When COVID hit, what seemed like a lofty vision that we’re gonna go sell these companies on allowing their workers to telework from Wilkes County became an instant reality when suddenly the whole world was teleworking,” says Wilkes Community College President Dr. Jeff Cox.
“If there’s any blessing in the COVID pandemic, it was that it shined a light on the possibilities with telework.”
Due to critical investments by local telecom companies during the Great Recession, “We have the strongest, most consistent broadband connectivity in the state of North Carolina,” says DeLucia. ”We have gig-plus fiber available to almost 90% of households.”
Cox shares how one woman who works at Red Hat in Raleigh must cross two creeks to reach her cabin in Alleghany County.
“I mean like, literally driving through the creek to get over to a little mountain cabin where they had a full gig of fiber connectivity – better than you’d have in downtown Charlotte,” he says.
“She could work remotely from her beautiful cabin in remote Alleghany County and stay connected to the urban center where her job was.”
Zach Barricklow, Executive Director of NC Tech Paths, says the effort focuses on tech jobs because they are remote-friendly – only 5-7% of tech workers were interrupted at all during the pandemic, he says.
The aim, of course, is economic mobility – but not necessarily geographic mobility.
“These jobs pay on average 50% more to 200% more than our median household income. Not individual income – household income in this region,” Barricklow says.
“And when we think about lifting a generation out of poverty … that’s a great opportunity.”