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CPCC’s Tony Zeiss wants to increase college’s role in luring jobs

Tony Zeiss wants to move Central Piedmont Community College to the center of local efforts to lure new jobs and companies thinking about relocating to Charlotte.

Zeiss, CPCC’s longtime president, is helping lead a new, regional consortium of a dozen area community colleges, as well as a group of civic leaders working to turn Charlotte into a global center of commerce and logistics.

Charlotte Regional Partnership CEO Ronnie Bryant said the community colleges are key in drawing new employers, who often tap the schools for workforce training.

“Every industrial project that we work in this region has some interaction with one of our community colleges,” Bryant said. “That’s so important to us.”

The Observer spoke with Zeiss this week to learn more about CPCC’s efforts to increase job training. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What’s your long-term goal for CPCC?

A: Our vision is to be the nation’s leader in workforce development. It may sound a little ostentatious, but visions need to have a stretch value to them.

We are constantly evaluating our programs to make sure they’re relevant. The true measure of success for us is did they get a job or did they transfer to the school they wanted to? Employers drive the curriculum, and they should, because we don’t want our curriculum to exist in a vacuum. What good is that? We’re employer-focused because we’re job-focused.

Q: Is your state funding rising to meet your increased ambitions?

A: In 2007, we were getting 69 percent of our operating dollars from the state. Today, it’s 40 percent, and it’s going to 38 percent, we believe, at the end of this year. States have more and more federal mandates, unfunded mandates, on them, and there’s not enough to go around.

Q: How have you dealt with that?

A: We have become very entrepreneurial. We work with our foundation to raise money, we’ve become expert at getting federal and state grants. We can actually collect fees for services – for instance, half of our research department, they’re doing research contracts. It’s not unlike universities, but it’s unusual for a community college to do that. We’re much like universities, where we’re going to have to supplement our revenue stream greater and greater every year. That’s the way it is. If we don’t want to turn students away, we’ve got to get out and raise the money.

Q: How many of your students are seeking a degree?

A: They’re not all going for a degree. Thirty to 40 percent right off the bat never intend to get a degree. They want a welding certificate or something they need to work. If you took our welders, according to federal guidelines they’re all rated as dropouts because none of them finished. They’re all hired, going to work.

Q: How do you team up with local employers to train people for jobs?

A: We send out training teams to identify what their needs are. We go into their plants and train whatever they need, whether it’s 3-D visualization, project management and everything in between. Almost any company you read about, our folks are knocking on the doors saying, ‘You know, you qualify for free training.’

Siemens, for instance. We’ve trained close to 1,500 people over there. It’s well over $4 million of customized training.

Q: How have you adapted your job training to the region’s changing economy?

A: About six years ago, we decided we need to work harder in producing a skilled work force in certain areas, advanced manufacturing being one of them.

We looked at Germany. They have negative population growth, they like America, they want to locate manufacturing plants here. We intentionally set a goal to be the most German-friendly college in America. We’re told we’re the only college that can teach and confer German government certifications. We want to attract more of them. If we can provide the apprenticeships and certifications they’re used to in Germany, it’s an incentive to come here.

Q: What do you think students should pursue in school – passion or jobs?

A: I always say they’ve got to follow their passion. But try to match up your passion with where the jobs are. I think one of the saddest things in higher education is when students say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do.” So you take a little of this, a little of that, and their federal debt goes up and they come out without any marketable skills.

If there are no jobs in the programs we’re teaching, we’ll typically take that program and make it a continuing or corporate education class for the three or four people who want it, but not make it a degree program. We don’t want people to have false expectations.

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