There are many partners and organizations involved in successful economic development programs and initiatives. In this Q&A Series, the Greenville ENC Alliance is interviewing key stakeholders in the local, regional, and state level that play a role in business attraction, retention, and expansion, workforce development, talent attraction and retention, and community engagement.
In this interview, Josh Lewis, the Greenville ENC Alliance’s president and CEO, sat down with Pitt Community College president Dr. Lawrence Rouse, who has more than 40 years of experience in community college administration. They discussed the importance of college education through a degree, certification, or credentialing program and how PCC is addressing the workforce development needs of our community and its local industries and businesses. On a personal level, Dr. Rouse shared what inspired him to pursue a career in higher education and explained his goals for PCC over the next several years.
(Portions of this interview, as published here, have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Q: Where are you from and how did you become interested in higher education and the community college system?
A: When I graduated from college, I returned to my hometown of Sumpter, South Carolina because I wanted to impact the residents there. First, through social services. I worked for a community action agency for a few years before I discovered the local technical college and saw what they were doing with individuals… they came back from the school changed, they were empowered. They had skills, they were going to work, they were forming their own businesses. So, I decided I wanted to go work for the local technical college. My first job was working with first-year African American males to get them through an appliance repair course. Out of about 12 students, I had 11 that finished, and they began working for local appliance repair, such as Sears and others. About four or five years later, we saw them starting their own businesses, and hiring other people in the community. So, when I saw that, I thought it was very powerful. I was really hooked on technical and community colleges.
Q: What about those early days in education made you know that you wanted to be in this career?
A: Changing people's lives. I think that community colleges really can help individuals move up the economic ladder. Instead of being dependent on somebody else, you become empowered to go to work, make your own money, and not only does it change that individual, but it also changes the dynamics within the family. It can help generations going forward. I remember one young lady who did not finish high school. She decided to go back and get her GED, and then she got into the nursing program. She completed the nursing program and decided she would become an emergency room nurse. We did a survey on her two years after she became a nurse. She was making well over $100,000, just by working on weekends and different shifts. This is a person who hadn't finished high school, but because she came back to the community college and got the GED and nursing degree, she was able to move forward.
Q: What does it feel like hearing those types of success stories?
A: I kind of get that feeling when I'm standing on the stage at graduation, knowing that these individuals coming across, whether they're going to be an automotive mechanic, or a plumber or a nurse or pharmacy technician, whatever they're going to be, they're going to do well, they're going to do better than they have been doing in the past.
Q: You’re passionate about mentoring minority males. What’s the need for this type of program?
A: I’ve worked with minority males at every community college where I’ve been employed. Before leaving the first college I did a study on 300 African American males. These were males who were not coming to school. I wanted to know, why aren't you coming to school? They gave me three reasons. One was expectation. Nobody expected them to go to school. They said their parents didn’t expect them to go, their grandparents didn’t expect them to go, and their teachers didn’t expect them to go. Secondly, they said they couldn’t afford college. They did not know about Pell Grants, scholarships, and all these things that are available to them. And third, they said they didn't know what career fields to pursue.
When we talk about addressing these issues, we look at each of them. We want to build expectation that they will go to college – not just minority males but for any student. We educate them that college is not just four-year universities but can be a two-year institution as well. When it comes to financial aid, we had to change the way that we put the message out. If you've never been exposed to higher ed you may not know what a scholarship is or how to complete the Financial Aid Application (FAFSA). We had to change the language of how we speak to potential students by simplifying it. The third point is that career planning is key. We have to start talking to people about the careers available now. Jamie Merisotis wrote a book called America Needs Talent and talks about starting as early as possible, bringing school-aged kids onto a college campus, and talking about careers. That was something I experimented with for a while. We would bring kindergartners onto the campus to build that expectation and to expose them to careers. We gave them their own ID cards when they came to campus, and those ID cards would always be there to remind them that they visited the college. We would bring them back every year so that as they grew up, they would know college is obtainable.
Q: What do you think are the pathways to engaging students? What are the easiest ways to be able to communicate with them through media channels or outreach?
A: All students are on devices and we’re now doing a lot of digital marketing. If you are a visitor to our campus, you might get a digital message on your phone about Pitt Community College. To engage the students, we must be relevant to what they want; what they can relate to. We must find ways to capture their attention and be in the places they are. They don't watch television, but they do watch their devices.
Q: So how do you typically go about reaching some of the adult learners and what credential programs aid the adult worker?
A: Well, it's kind of varied for adult learners. When we started trying to market to adult learners, we started with postcards and things of that nature, more traditional media. The demographic that we really target is those who already have some college but no degree or certificate. We started by saying to them: “We welcome you back.” We created an Adult Learning Center because we realized the needs of adult students had to be addressed differently than those of someone just out of high school. We needed to address barriers such as childcare, transportation, food insecurity. We tried to assess what issues may cause the adult learner to drop the program again, whether their pursuit was a degree or certificate program, and what their timeline is for getting back into the workforce. We see that they are pursuing a lot in the healthcare field such as certified nurse's aide or phlebotomist certification. Many of the males get their CDL in a four-or five-week programs. We're doing heavy equipment operations, entry level biotechnology, and welding. We have the largest welding program in the state of North Carolina with plans to build a new welding facility starting January.
Q: In addition to the workforce development, credentialing, and education, what other roles does a community college play within the community?
A: We are not a social service agency, but sometimes we must operate as such. That helps students become successful and successful students are going to give back to society. We are working with Pitt County Detention Center and the court system to help those once incarcerated acquire their GED or some technical skills because they are trying to get back into the workforce.
Q: The work is never done, there is no Super Bowl ring. At PCC, what does the next five or 10 years look like?
A: We recently approved our Facilities Master Plan, which is five plus years. We know that facilities are needed, but we're not building traditional classroom space, we're looking at building more lab space. Even our welding facility is going to have a lot of lab space. We're going after some funding for a center for workforce development and innovation here on campus. If we get the funding for it, it will be one of the largest buildings because it's just going to have bays and other lab spaces. But I will say our goal over the next five years or so, is really to make sure that we're developing programs that will benefit our community and our employers.
There are many new things that are coming out, particularly things like your AI, artificial intelligence, we need to be on top of that one way or the other. I don't know where it's headed, but there is a need to be able to offer not only a two-year degree, or a program if somebody just wants to explore these new technologies.
I have big hopes for a business incubator. We want to help develop new businesses in Greenville-Pitt County, but we also want businesses to stay here.
Q: There are so many barriers, so many challenges that you can never find a solution for them all. If funding weren't an issue and you could provide a solution to one of the challenges we discussed today, what would it be?
A: I think having the capacity for growth and making sure that we have facilities, programs, and services for any student that wants to come to PCC is one of our ultimate goals right now. We have a campaign to raise $15 million. And what we want to do with that is invest it, and then allow it to grow interest which can generate scholarships. We want any citizen in Pitt County, who wants to come to Pitt Community College, to be able to come here debt free. We want to make sure everybody can afford college, and have what they need to go to school, whether it's books, lab fees, or tools needed to be in the welding program or the automotive program. If we can get that in place, that will mean so much that we'll have students who can come without going into debt.
Right now, we're also working with the Pitt Area Transit System to develop a program where our students can call up or get on a regular routine for transportation just by showing their student ID. We're trying to remove some of the barriers that would make it easier for students to get here, both physically or virtually.
Q: As a member of the Alliance, is there an area where you feel that the Alliance can step in and play a pivotal role to ensure that you are successful?
A: I think that the Alliance has the finger on the pulse of what's going on in the economic development arena. If we can be a partner when a business is looking at locating here, you can inform us what we can do better to assist in providing the workforce with the skills to assist the new business.
We’re always trying to get external validation for our programs, and making sure that we are providing the right skill sets that employers need. Employers can encourage employees to take advantage of our customized training programs. I know sometimes employers cannot shut down a line to send all their employees for training, but maybe they can send some of employees to a program that is offered free of charge. If they take advantage of this, it will allow them to establish a train-the-trainer type of situation; those who take our training can return to train their colleagues.
Pitt Community College educates and empowers people for success. With a culture of excellence and innovation, the college is a vital partner in the economic and workforce development of our community. PCC provides access to dynamic learning opportunities designed to foster personal enrichment, successful career preparation, and higher education transfer.
In addition, PCC is the seventh largest community college system in North Carolina. To learn more about PCC and the programs it offers to students as well as high schoolers and adult learners, please visit: https://pittcc.edu