Dr. Leatherwood congratulates graduate at Fall 2022 graduation ceremony.

Addressing Workforce Challenges in 2022

Dr. Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge Community College, congratulates a graduate at the Fall 2022 graduation ceremony. (Photo by Benjamin Rickert, Marketing & Communications Dept.)

This article is also available at The Hendersonville Times-News.

By Dr. Laura B. Leatherwood, President
Blue Ridge Community College

As we head into a new year, it’s natural to reflect on shared accomplishments from the year before. I am extremely proud of how Blue Ridge and our partners stepped forward in 2022 to address workforce challenges in our community. Together, we have laid the groundwork for what I believe will yield substantive outcomes for years to come.

Modern facilities to support innovative training: Our ability to deliver relevant training is directly linked to having up-to-date, modern facilities. With generous support from the Henderson County Commissioners, Blue Ridge opened two new facilities in 2022: a Public Safety Training Facility and the Patton Building. The new Public Safety Training Facility is a flexible space available to our partners in law enforcement, fire and rescue services. The new Patton Building is a $23.4 million project featuring modern educational space designed to position us as a robust economic development and industry recruitment partner.

To further support the evolving needs of the horticulture and agriculture industries, we have made significant improvements to our existing greenhouse. Thanks to a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, we will complete a new, automated greenhouse in 2023.

Affordable pathways to success: Many of our students must make difficult financial decisions to determine if they can attend college. Since 2021, we have offered Brighter Future scholarships to make attending college free for our students. In 2022, we received an anonymous $2 million donation, extending free college through the spring of 2023.

Blue Ridge’s growing list of transfer pathways allows many local students to pursue degrees close to home before seamlessly transferring to the school of their choice to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Students can save upwards of $20,000 utilizing this option.

Re-examining the workforce pipeline: Blue Ridge recognizes that a qualified workforce exists in both high school graduates and adult learners aged 25 and older. If we can capture a student’s attention and interest while in high school, we’re well-positioned to assist them for the remainder of their educational journey. Last fall, more than 500 students took advantage of our Career and College Program, receiving a tuition-free opportunity to take college courses while still in high school.

Beginning in 2025, the number of high school graduates is projected to decline dramatically. To offset this decline and its impact on the local workforce, Blue Ridge is increasing its focus on adult learners. Helping the members of this important population to expand their skill sets and meet workforce needs means giving them the support and flexibility needed to overcome their complex schedules and life demands. We are encouraged that this focus recently increased adult learners at Blue Ridge by 41% over one year.

Expanded healthcare training options: Blue Ridge serves as a vital pipeline that places much-needed talent into our healthcare system. Even prior to the pandemic, we had a shortage of healthcare workers; that number has only grown. To address this challenge, we have added 20 additional seats to our nursing program and developed a new associate degree program in Respiratory Therapy starting in Fall 2023.

Growing in-demand programs: We have several pathways to choose from for prospective students interested in information technology, including cybersecurity. Blue Ridge was recently recognized as a Center for Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity with the National Security Agency (NSA). We are also a part of the Cisco Academy, allowing students to take free specialized training.

To address the growing teacher shortage in K-12 environments, Blue Ridge offers a Teacher Prep pathway that allows local students to complete coursework close to home before pursuing a bachelor’s degree. In response to a local shortage of pre-kindergarten educators, Blue Ridge will expand its Early Childhood Education (ECE) program in 2023 thanks to a very recent $1M grant provided by Dogwood Health Trust. The grant funds the College’s ECE Recruiting and Success Initiative, which aims to increase pre-kindergarten options for parents in Henderson and Transylvania counties by expanding the teacher workforce.

Blue Ridge has also invested resources and developed partnerships to grow interest and add training pathways for other in-demand careers such as engineering, advanced manufacturing, and skilled trades like construction, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, welding and masonry.

As we look back on 2022, I am proud of the work we’ve done and the partnerships we have in place to address our community’s workforce challenges. I’m confident that in 2023, Blue Ridge and our partners will continue to increase the number of graduates who are trained and educated, ready to work and able to contribute to a thriving economy.