One of the most outstanding characteristics of American community colleges is how they can so quickly and effectively adapt to serve their communities. What Northeast Alabama Community College (NACC) did during the country’s Great Recession is a perfect example of this. Because of shifting trends in the American textile industry, the college’s service area was hit even harder by the downturn in the American economy that began in 2007. At its peak, some 10,000 people were employed in the textile industry in one of the county’s (DeKalb) served by the college. The sharp downtown in employment in the textile industry during this time brought the number employed down to some 1,250 within a few next years. By 2010 the overall unemployment rate in Jackson County had reached 13 percent and 16 percent in DeKalb County in 2011.
Many of these and other unemployed workers in the college’s service area of DeKalb and Jackson counties turned to NACC. The workers sought education and retraining for new jobs and careers in order that they and their families could survive financially. Since so many textile plants were moving outside the country, many of these unemployed workers qualified for Trade Readjustment Act (TRA) benefits, a federal government program that provided funding for educational benefits for workers whose jobs were affected by foreign imports. Other unemployed employees qualified for Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funds, which also provided educational benefits for workers who need training to reenter the workforce.
“Because of these opportunities, hundreds of people turned to Northeast to restart their work lives,” stated Dr. David Campbell, President of NACC. “One year the college had approximately six hundred students who were receiving either TRA or WIA grants for retraining.”
Campbell pointed out that the retraining process was a team effort with local agencies. Local Career Centers helped get unemployed workers eligible for retraining, as did state employment offices. State agencies like ADECA came in to help as well. “Our area was faced with a massive economic problem,” Campbell said, “and it took many different agencies working together to deal with the issues.”
The college was able to initiate specific programs to assist not only these students in their retraining. For example, knowing that many of these students would need help in making a decision about what new field to go into, the college applied for and received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to establish and staff a Career Laboratory that could help people make a decision about what new career they wanted to pursue. The costs of the Career Laboratory eventually were absorbed by the college and it still exists, helping not only nontraditional students but traditional students and community members as well.
Knowing that many nontraditional students might need help with the emerging computer technology, the college obtained a Title III federal grant. Money from this grant was used to establish and staff a Technology Learning Center (TLC) in which students received assistance in how to operate personal computers and software. Again the college eventually financially absorbed the TLC and it too today remains a part of NACC. To help students in those factories that were closing, the college also set up Adult Education courses in factories through which workers could receive their high school equivalency certifications. To assist their workers, a number of factories provided space, equipment, and computers for the courses.
As the economy improved, and as workers became retrained, the number of NACC students receiving WIA or TRA grants began decreasing. In 2010-2011, for example, 593 NACC students were receiving WIA (309) or TRA (284) grants. By 2016-2017 this number had dropped to 88 (1 TRA and 87 WIA).
“One thing we were careful about,” Campbell stated, “was that we knew the number of TRA and WIA students we were getting would be temporary, or at least we hoped it would be. So we did not over staff or over spend during this time period. We knew the additional money we were getting in the form of tuition through TRA/WIA was temporary and would not last indefinitely.”
The college, officials think, was in a position to really assist area students during this period. In anticipation of the need for more career tech/technology training, the college had initiated and established many new programs prior to the recession. Included among the programs established or added during this time were industrial maintenance, machining tool technology, welding technology, instrumentation, salon and spa management, cosmetology, massage therapy, medical assisting, criminal justice, and childhood development to go along with programs that already existed such drafting and design technology, industrial electronics, office administration, paralegal studies, paramedic studies, emergency medical services, and nursing. (HVAC-R and a construction program have since been added.) The college through various contracts also offered various non-credit programs which could lead to jobs. As early as 2005 NACC had opened a Workforce Development Center on campus and converted its Technology Division to a Workforce Development Division. “Our Workforce staff did an outstanding job helping the college get these programs in place, then up and running,” Campbell said. “They also helped greatly with the paperwork of the WIA and TRA programs.”
In order to help determine the impact the college had during these very trying times, NACC officials recently conducted a survey to find out results. NACC Director of Institutional Research Brad Fricks recently conducted this survey, which included a questionnaire mailed to some TRA students enrolled at the college in the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 academic years. “We knew that it was approaching a decade since these students had attended Northeast and that addresses were likely to have changed,” Fricks said. “But we did get responses back from a number of these former students.” In all, 81 percent of those who responded said that their experience had helped them find new or better employment. Among the comments were: “I lost my job in 2009 and being a 40-year old I was able to enter and complete the LPN and the RN program which led to a career of a lifetime. Thank you for the degree.” Another respondent stated: “My education at NACC opened the door . . . and has afforded me all the opportunities to advance to the position I now enjoy.” Another said: “Students come from all walks of life. NACC provides an environment of caring, respectful, highly qualified faculty to help with each and every need.” And lastly: “I received a paralegal degree then went to get my real estate license. The knowledge from NACC helped and still helps my profession.” In all 90 percent of the respondents said that they achieved their goals at Northeast and 71 percent agreed the college had prepared them to enter the workforce. Only a few of the respondents described their experiences as negative.
“I don’t know as we got enough information back to form any final conclusions,” Fricks said. “But all in all what we got back was very positive.”
Campbell added that the survey results were very gratifying. “It is rewarding to think that the college helped people during some very stressful times,” he said. “We had to respond quickly and our faculty, staff, and administrators did just that. I like to think that with experience and improved resources, we are capable of doing even more to help today. Of course, we are still very much involved in academic transfer, workforce training, and adult education today. But that recession period did present some real challenges. I am proud of the way everyone at Northeast responded to these economically stressful times.”
During the recession period, local agencies and elected officials worked diligently to bring in new work opportunities for area residents. Such economic development agencies as the DeKalb County Economic Development Authority and Jackson County Economic Development Authority were involved in this, working with local and state officials. These efforts have paid off as the economy has improved. DeKalb County how has an unemployment rate of 3.9% and the unemployment rate in Jackson County is 4.1%.1 There is even an increase in the number of those working in the textile industry – up to some 1,500 now in DeKalb County from the low point of 1,250. (Some local textile companies, such as Maples Industry in Jackson County, pushed through the recession years and did not move or close. Maples remains Jackson County’s largest employer.) Through all these efforts, economic conditions are looking up in the area, particularly with industry giant Google now having a $600 million data center plant under construction in Jackson County. “Our job now is to train the next wave of workers in our area to make certain they are prepared for the new type jobs that are emerging,” Campbell concluded. “We want them to be ready for the new workforce/technology of the future.”
For more information about Northeast, visit the college’s website at www.nacc.edu or download the college’s free App from the App Store or Google Play Store. Follow NACC on social media.