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A Regional Strategy for Technology Training

by Fred D. Baldwin

Photo Gallery
photo of student Beth Pierce

Stephen Tate, a 26-year-old ex-Marine, takes courses in computer networking at the Kingsport, Tennessee, Regional Center for Applied Technology (RCAT), a branch of Northeast State Technical Community College. He completes a substantial part of his course assignments online, working from home rather than a classroom.

"That's valuable to me," Tate says, "because of my work schedule. I can get an education and at the same time hold a full-time job."

Tate expects to learn enough at RCAT to acquire certifications of expertise from Microsoft, Cisco, and other suppliers of computer software and networking devices. This could mean the difference between a starting rate of $25 per hour and one of $10 per hour. Tate and his wife, Rachel, who's working toward an M.B.A., want very much to stay in the Kingsport area, where other family members live. Someday Tate expects to launch his own technology-related business.

That's exactly the kind of career track the civic and educational leaders who created RCAT hope to encourage. RCAT is the lynchpin of a long-term strategy to keep talented young people in the Kingsport area (Sullivan and Hawkins Counties, near the eastern tip of Tennessee). Improving the overall educational level of the area's labor force and expanding opportunities for job-specific training, especially in technical fields, is expected to make the area more attractive to information-based businesses. Attracting such firms will, in turn, provide job opportunities for graduates of the area's schools.

"It's more than just economic development," says Jeanette Blazier, Kingsport's mayor since 1999 and former director of the region's strategic planning process. "It's demonstrating the care that our community has for our young people. All the statistics point to continuing loss in the manufacturing sector, so we'll have to find other sectors. To do that, we have to have something to offer."

RCAT, which opened to students in 2002, is within walking distance of downtown Kingsport, about 16 miles from the Northeast State Technical Community College main campus. Located in a former warehouse, the center looks cheerfully collegiate behind a new red brick façade. Inside, vinyl tile hallways shine, their brightness softened by pastel walls. Approximately 12,000 square feet of space is divided into four classrooms, three computer labs, offices, and common areas.

RCAT offers courses in three broad areas: computer science and information technology (including programming, networking, and troubleshooting); office administration technology (applications from productivity software suites like Microsoft Office); and business management. One classroom is equipped for distance learning. This allows students at the main Northeast campus and branch campuses in Kingsport and Elizabethton to interact with an instructor and with each other via a large-screen TV.

Part of a Larger Package

While RCAT is an impressive educational resource in its own right, the program can best be understood as part of a package. Several years ago, community leaders decided to face the implications of an unpleasant fact: the area's historically strong manufacturing base was in a steep decline that seemed likely to continue for the foreseeable future, perhaps indefinitely. Kingsport's public school system, widely recognized as one of the best in the state, was placing many of its graduates in first-tier colleges; however, few of these bright young people were returning. These problems and ideas for addressing them were the focus of an "economic summit" convened by Blazier in 1999. The summit brought together over 50 Kingsport-area leaders from local government, business firms, and various educational and service organizations. "We had a consultant come in who said, 'Your demographics look like a Rust Belt city's'," recalls Jeff Fleming, assistant city manager for development. "That's not something a mayor wants to hear, but she and the community were courageous enough to have it said out loud. People had been saying it anyway."

Determined that downward trends would not be accepted as destiny, key decision makers began to think about how to pool their resources.

The city of Kingsport decided to increase its financial support, channeled through the local chamber of commerce, for encouraging outside businesses to consider the advantages of locating in the area. Everyone realized, however, that effective marketing would depend on having something exciting to market.

Northeast State Technical Community College could offer education and training expertise, and its president, William Locke, was committed to establishing a campus in Kingsport. Locke knew what many in the area had not yet recognized: that a high school diploma was no longer sufficient for getting a good job in industry. "The message we're trying to get across to people, by the 11th grade or earlier," Locke says, "is to get in the front door [of industrial firms] you've got to step it up and take courses more difficult than those you're taking now. That won't guarantee they'll hire you, but you can't get in the front door if you don't have training beyond high school."

In support of that message, the city of Kingsport agreed to launch "Educate and Grow," a remarkable program embodying the message to individual young people and to the community as a whole. Under this program, Kingsport, soon joined by Sullivan County, decided to offer a scholarship at Northeast to any local high school graduate who met the college's entrance requirements. The program was developed by Kingsport in early 2001, and the first scholarships were awarded in the fall of that year. The Sullivan County commissioners then approved a resolution appropriating $200,000 for county-wide support during the 2001–2002 school year (a level of support continued for the 2002–2003 and 2003–2004 school years.) The exact amount of the scholarships varies each year, depending on the number of qualified applicants. The scholarships currently pay about 70 percent of full tuition.

Under Educate and Grow, students can complete a two-year associate's degree or earn some credits for transfer to a four-year college. In effect, the two local governments have expanded a conventional K–12 public school program to a K–14 program, with the final two post-secondary years being optional. This approach may be unique in the nation. Kingsport Times-News publisher Keith Wilson, one of the economic summit organizers, says that the idea for Educate and Grow won remarkably prompt acceptance.

"We wouldn't blink an eye about paying somebody that amount to locate an industry here," Wilson says. "But you can't get a high-tech, or even a low-tech, plant without people who have the necessary skill sets. You have to have both. So we made the connection. Let's invest in the people and see if that will help bring the industry in."

Finally, Kingsport could offer a potential site for the Northeast branch campus. A few years earlier, the Tennessee Department of Transportation had indicated that funds were available to build a bus terminal to help Kingsport develop a public transit system. The city's Board of Mayor and Aldermen, rather than applying immediately for a grant, established a few trial routes to test public demand for the service. When demand materialized as expected, the city decided to accept a private owner's offer to sell a warehouse complex adjacent to the proposed terminal site. The purchase price for the old building would be about half the cost of building a new terminal. However, renovation costs would be substantial, and state funds for terminal construction had dried up. Nevertheless, the building combined a good location with 16,000 square feet of floor space, three times the amount needed to shelter the city's buses.

A Sound Investment

Clear evidence that so many key local players were acting in concert helped persuade federal agencies that RCAT would be a sound investment. The city, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the Economic Development Administration, and the U.S. Department of Transportation together contributed over $1.1 million for renovating the building (with approximately one-third of its space to be used for a bus terminal and the remainder for RCAT). The ARC funds were used mainly to equip RCAT with computing and telecommunications technology.

RCAT opened in September 2002, with just over 300 students. A year later enrollment had nearly doubled. Robin Dice, RCAT's director, says that about half of these students are recent high school graduates and half are non-traditional students returning for more education. Some are coming back to school after years of working at manufacturing jobs that no longer exist locally; others are simply trying to upgrade their employability.

Currently, well over 100 students are receiving Educate and Grow scholarships. That number might be larger, but Northeast first determines whether applicants are eligible for other sources of help, such as Pell Grants. Publicity about the program has yielded an unanticipated bonus for a number of Kingsport households with family members employed at modest salaries. Locke explains that parents in these households often assume, incorrectly, that they earn too much to qualify for financial aid. Because Educate and Grow has no income eligibility requirements, students from these families apply and often learn that they qualify for other assistance—sometimes receiving help during the full four years of college.

RCAT continues to experiment with applications of technology for self-directed learning. Faculty member Mike Spradlin proudly introduces TOM (training online manager) and SAM (student assessment manager), software that enables students to practice course modules and monitor their progress—from anywhere, including home. "For routine instruction," Spradlin says, "the computer probably does better than I do. It's more patient. And it frees the teacher to really teach."

In addition to coursework toward degree requirements, RCAT provides on-demand training for industry, a part of the program that is expected to grow. Dice says that RCAT offers "three T's: training, technology, and transportation" (convenient bus service at bargain prices). She could add a fourth "T," for "toddlers." A day-care center located around the corner from RCAT offers a needs-based sliding-fee scale for RCAT students with young children.

Looking ahead, Ray Griffin, Kingsport's city manager, mentions plans to position Kingsport in the minds of industry as a "center of performance excellence," built on expertise and experience in meeting international quality management standards. He also describes cultural initiatives to make the area highly attractive, part of a strategy to build "civic capital." These ideas mesh with plans that Northeast president Locke sketches out for what sounds like an expanded version of RCAT, which may include cooperative efforts between Northeast and a four-year college.

No one suggests that any of this will be easy. Kingsport's young people are being told in no uncertain terms that the levels of education that once served as entry tickets to well-paying manufacturing jobs now won't even get them interviews for those jobs. RCAT students like Stephen Tate also know that merely accumulating post-high school credit hours won't be enough to earn technical certifications from firms like Microsoft and Cisco, which administer their own difficult exams. Finally, Kingsport leaders know that a long history of losing talented young people won't be reversed overnight.

Nevertheless, everyone sounds confident. "I know what it takes to succeed," Tate says. That sums up Kingsport's attitude as it plans for a rust-free future.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.