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Ch@t: Developing skills, supporting business goals part of Roberton's new role From Chatham News+Record

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Click to enlarge,  Margaret Roberton

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Margaret Roberton

08.28.2020Admin, Faculty & StaffCollege & CommunityCollege General

Workforce development is an integral part of the work community colleges do to boost local and regional economic development. In Chatham County, Margaret Roberton counts that as part of her job. She's recently been named the new Central Carolina Community College Vice President of Workforce Development after serving as Associate Vice President of Workforce Continuing Education with the N.C. Community College System. This week, we speak with Roberton about her new role and how she plans to integrate her efforts in the region. Roberton and her husband, James, have a 15-year-old son, James Kent, who will be joining the CCCC family as a Career & College Promise student this fall. They live in Chatham County.

Let's start with workforce development. That's been an important function for CCCC over the years. Can you explain what it is and why it's critical for local business and industry to have support in that arena from their local community college?

Workforce development targets the development of individuals with the skills necessary to access good jobs that support the goals of businesses within the region. It is a critical piece of the economic development conversation, as the availability of a skilled workforce is an essential consideration for both retention of existing employers as well as the recruitment of new businesses.

A strong community college, like CCCC, is an integral component of the economic development team, specifically around workforce development. The college can support the expansion of a qualified workforce for entry-level positions as well as the growth of employees to fill the increasingly commented upon 'middle skills' roles within a business.

CCCC demonstrates its commitment to workforce and economic development through its strong partnerships and willingness to bring resources and networks to address identified needs. These responses include broader programs with regional demand in both short-term credentials as well as degree programs as well as those addressing specific community needs. This flexibility can be seen in Chatham County through the sustainability programs, culinary arts focus, and the development of the health sciences center.

You've worked at the state level in continuing education, and now you're back at CCCC leading the workforce development effort. What's the relationship between those two -- continuing ed and workforce development?

I see workforce development as the larger umbrella of our engagement with students and employers. It is the efforts the college expends to support the students in achieving their career and growth goals specifically as they align with local and regional employer needs.

Workforce development within the community college includes a spectrum of resources: adult literacy, continuing education, customized training, corporate training and small business center programs as well as technical and transfer degree programs.

Quality short-term training programs, which are the strength of continuing education, provide individuals the opportunity to gain high-demand skills for the jobs of today. They can be the foundational workforce credential of an individual entering or re-entering the workforce in a meaningful way. They can be the first step in a path leading toward a degree giving them access to advancement in their career journey. They can also be the next step credential for individuals already engaged in the workforce and looking for the skills to move forward.

I've spent the last several years working with state level partners, employers and associations on the workforce needs across the state. During that time, I have also worked with the colleges to support their efforts in developing continuing education programs that provide students access to training that leads to those good jobs. At CCCC, I'm interested in how we create meaningful opportunities for individuals to engage with us at different points along their career trajectory supporting both the student's goals and addressing employer needs.

What are the most significant workforce development needs existing nowadays -- and, on a side note, has COVID changed that?

Developing a robust workforce pipeline of qualified individuals for good jobs is a significant demand. Both potential and existing employers consistently state the need for a skilled labor pool. This development demands not only the creation of training opportunities, but ensuring that those opportunities are accessible for all members of our community. Access is dependent on providing information and resources to individuals both for the opportunity of today as well as the career path that considers the sector as well transitional trajectories. Individuals need to see success for themselves and their families as much as employers need resources to support their growth.

Recent N.C. Commerce data provides a high-level look of the employment impact of COVID-19, but those impacts are not equal across all sectors or regions. As employers are implementing new safety measures to bring staff back into the workplace and individuals are navigating the logistics of work, the community colleges are implementing flexible instructional methods to ensure access and attainment. This includes both technical and employability skills training. Employability skills are those generally identified as skills necessary to effectively navigate the work environment. The ability to function effectively across various digital platforms (digital literacy), to think critically, communicate effectively and problem solve are more critical now than ever.

What do you see as your biggest challenge in assuming this role at CCCC?

CCCC has a large and diverse service area. One of my initial challenges is finding the best way of understanding the different communities, businesses and stakeholders across the region. This would be a significant task in any scenario, but one where COVID-19 restrictions impact access to traditional opportunities of engagement requires a creative response. My goal is to leverage the increasing use of technology to mitigate this perceived restriction and reach out to more groups across the region.

The additional challenge -- in all times, but perhaps more so in the moment -- is for employers to find time to engage in a meaningful way. The most effective response for workforce development requires employers at the table as partners. I want to connect with the businesses in the region to see how we can work collaboratively to address the needs of the community. One of the things I'm looking forward to is finding those threads of similarity that we can build upon and leverage the resources of CCCC while addressing the unique needs across the region.

What drew you to return to the college campus level? And what specifically drew you back to Chatham County?

While I truly enjoyed working at the state level, supporting our 58 community colleges and working with our partners, I missed the direct connection to the local community. CCCC recently held its convocation ceremony and even in that virtual environment, the recognition of the students, faculty and staff who engage in and support the mission of the college reinforced the reasons I wanted to return to the college campus and specifically to CCCC.

I am very much looking forward to taking the skills, networks, and insights acquired at prior positions to impact local and regional needs. Being part of a team, both within the college and with our economic development partners, which is interested in implementing innovative strategies that support the health and vibrancy of a community is exciting and I want to be part of that conversation.

On bringing my family back to Chatham County -- we lived in Chatham County during my first role at CCCC and enjoyed the environment of Pittsboro and the general community spirit found across the different communities. We wanted to return to a place where we could appreciate both the rural aspects, as well as having access to the amenities and resources of broader area. Chatham is a diverse and growing community where we hope to find a place to meaningfully engage in supporting the area and enjoying all the attributes of the county.

Like Dr. Chapman, you're coming back to the college level from the state. What's it's like to be back working with her?

Working with Dr. Chapman is both challenging and exciting. She has a tremendous passion for students and the role of the community college in supporting the region. She has great vision of opportunities for growth and the ability to see where we may need to address policy or practice to move those opportunities from good ideas to great realities.

While at the state office, Dr. Chapman was intent on finding new ways and listening for creative solutions to achieve success. This openness to hearing many voices from different spaces, considering options and applying innovation is exciting while at the same time it can be challenging to define new paths and systems. She is effective in articulating the vision and looks for opportunities to collaborate so that individuals are vested in the success.

Dr. Chapman is committed to outcomes and always has people, students, faculty, staff and community, at the center of her attention. These are the attributes of leadership that drew me to returning to work with Dr. Chapman and excited to see how I can support her vision at CCCC.

You've discussed supporting workforce and leveraging the strengths of CCCC. What do you see as the college's major strengths?

The individuals at CCCC are the core strength. My experiences from the state office with the CCCC staff and their desire to find the best ways to serve has only been reinforced over the two months since I joined the college. The willingness to engage and find solutions is a tremendous asset as we look at how to build programs and resources that support students along a continuum of learning. This continuum provides access to next step opportunities at various stages of their careers.

Additional strengths include a Board of Trustees and community partners who see the tremendous value of the college and support its role as a key collaborator in the growth of the region. This support cannot be overstated as it provides the basis for the college's ability to engage in innovation and to meet our vision of equitable pathways to achievable dreams for our communities.

Coming from the state level, how would you assess the economic growth potential of our region -- and particularly Chatham County?

The economic growth potential of the region is tremendous. The three-county service area of CCCC -- Chatham, Harnett and Lee -- is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the strong growth prospects within the state, both geographically and through person resources. Whether you define the region by the Triangle South Workforce Board, the Research Triangle Regional Partnership or the North Central Prosperity Zone, this area of North Carolina exemplifies potential across a number of industry sectors. Combine the opportunities in biotech, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, technology, construction, public infrastructure, and transportation with a focus to maintain lifestyle appeal and this region is well positioned for continued success.

Chatham specifically has immense potential as it defines its relationship with the development coming from RTP and the Triad. The area recognizes spaces that need to be addressed like broadband access which impact both businesses and individual households. I'm very much looking forward to engaging with the Chatham EDC, the Chatham Chamber of Commerce and other stakeholders on what that growth looks like in the next several years. Finding the balance between great jobs accessible to the individuals of the community and achieving quality of life for all residents is critical.