The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 2, 2014

Power to the blue

New River redefines the ‘blue-collar’ workforce

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— Imagine a world in which an ice storm, ruptured pipe or bad hair day had no ready solution — a world without qualified plumbers, without certified power technicians or trained cosmetologists.

These are only a few of the “blue-collar” roles filled by community college graduates, at times uncelebrated contributors to a healthy and stable West Virginia.

 “The community college is truly the people’s college, started on the idea that all could benefit from education,” said Dr. L. Marshall Washington, president of New River Community and Technical College, in an interview at the halfway mark of his first year in the role.

“Community colleges are developing; they are coming into their own,” said Washington.

The “all” referenced, those who were among the first to find an education inside the community college programs of the early 20th century, included the historically excluded — women, children of parents of modest or no means, those wanting fulfilling careers but for any number of important reasons tied to remaining near home. In short, those who would have been rarely, if ever, prioritized by traditional universities.

At an apogee in evolution from high school work readiness programs and vocational schools into freestanding halls of achievement, community colleges are now fulfilling an increasing global need for skilled laborers.

Hard-hat and blowtorch required? Maybe. But Washington labels the sum total curriculum of today’s community college “… fascinating” and diverse.

Included in his school’s repertoire are banking and financing fundamentals; cosmetology and esthetics; casino operations; horticulture; and a child care practitioner degree for early childhood educators, used by many as an entry point into the field of education. Medical assisting and practical nursing are among the most popular allied health programs.

The spectrum of possibilities is surprising to those who held community colleges to their old, limited identities.  

“That’s what we’re here for — to train our next generation of plumbers, welders, beauticians and other service-oriented careers. Our media doesn’t always highlight those positions as being honorable. But when you work at them, you fulfill a good portion of the middle class in America — those are the people who can get a nice house and maintain a livelihood that they work hard for.”

Such practical programs, most completed within two years, are growing in demand in a crowded job marketplace where advanced degrees are no guarantee for employment. U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics showed a slight decline in the unemployment rate of around 7 percent in November 2013, accounting for 11 million jobless Americans. With 3.9 million jobs up for grabs, an average of three candidates are still scratching for one position.

Securing immediate and gainful employment in a viable field is the focus for the community college graduate. Certain jobs represented by the certifications at New River are surprisingly lucrative.

“Our line service mechanic certification is in cooperation with American Electric Power. This can be a dangerous field, but individuals can make $70,000 to $80,000 per year starting out, and upward of $100,000 to $120,000 with experience,” explained Washington.

Many community colleges serve multiple communities. New River maintains locations in Beckley, Lewisburg, Ghent, Princeton and Summersville and a new Raleigh County campus is currently under construction beside the Erma Byrd Higher Education Center near Beckley.

“The Raleigh County building will hopefully be available to us August 2014,” said Washington, indicating classes inside the new complex are anticipated to begin in January 2015.

Nicholas County students are also expecting a new 35,000-square-foot building the school is securing for lease, in partnership with the Nicholas County Commission. New River has acquired and renovated an old elementary school building to house its expanding allied health programs in Greenbrier County. The school is presently negotiating an expansion to the existing campus in Mercer County. Wherever the school is reaching, students are enrolling.

“Some students have to stay in proximity to home, where many people feel supported. They have families or extended families, lives of their own or they may be trying to care for an older adult. They may not have had as much success in school earlier and think, ‘I’m going to do something now.’”

Some students just out of high school are skeptical that they should spend a great deal of time and money for a university degree that may or may not translate into a job in an unpredictable economy; accommodating today’s “nontraditional” students to better the region is Washington’s goal.  

“They may have a sliver of success here at New River and build upon that and decide to transfer to another school,” explained Washington. “That’s what I want for all people, to look at their circumstances and to do what I can do to help — not to look down my nose at them, but to take their lives into consideration.”

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com