Prosperity puzzle

Catawba County education and business leaders are assembling the pieces of a workforce training puzzle that they say will make futures brighter for all ages.

Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) announced Wednesday morning it now operates the Champions of Education (COE) and Education Matters programs that serve students in the county through advocacy events and business partnerships.

Education Matters and COE will operate as part of CVCC's Student and Community Engagement Division. The partnership became official Oct. 1.

"This takes a 60-watt bulb and makes it a 100-watt bulb and makes everything brighter for everyone," said CVCC President Dr. Garrett Hinshaw. "We need people to continue to plug in the power."

COE also announced the creation of a 15-county Future Forward Workforce Alliance that will work to increase the percentage of adults who attain degrees, earn certificates and complete other advanced training. A Regional Innovation Grant for workforce development supported the formation of the alliance, which includes Catawba, Burke, Alexander, Caldwell, Yancey, Mitchell, Avery, Watauga, Ashe Alleghany, Wilkes, McDowell, Rutherford, Cleveland and Polk counties.

The alliance — a project of the High Country Workforce Development Board, Western Piedmont Workforce Development and Region C Workforce Development Consortium — will provide a "learner support system." The system will provide adults seeking more education with access to needs assessments, planning coordination, success coaches, financial aid opportunities, child care support and other services.

The alliance's goal is to increase by 20 percent the number of adults in the region with associate's and bachelor's degrees, certificates and enrollment in post-secondary education by 2018, said Lamar Mitchell, COE director.

"We're trying to create a culture of lifelong learning," Mitchell said.

"It's about developing a pipeline for students all through their years in school."

Hinshaw told a crowd of education and business leaders Wednesday morning in Hickory he's worried about the future of Catawba County as poverty increases.

"The bottom line is our critical needs are continuing to grow and our resources are continuing to shrink," Hinshaw said. "We run the risk of losing an entire generation of 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds."

"Catawba County has been turned into puzzle pieces, put in a box without any picture to put the puzzle pieces together," he continued.

"We have to start putting the picture together now. We can't do it alone. This is something that's going to take everyone."

Hinshaw said the new partnership between CVCC, COE and Education Matters will benefit all ages.

Mitchell said COE — which formed in 2005 as a Catawba County Chamber of Commerce program and became a nonprofit organization in 2008 — will assist Education Matters with business and industry outreach, and all current COE programs will continue except its preschool advancement initiative.

Education Matters, launched in 2009 and already administered by CVCC for more than a year, will continue to connect the business community with students, said director Tracy Hall. The organization currently works with 135 businesses and 900 students at nine high schools in Catawba County to provide workforce training. Hall said Education Matters will begin working with CVCC students in fall 2012.

"And, in 2012, we'll be working with all 10th-graders in all schools in Catawba County," Hall said. "Why does education matter? Because we care about our children. We care about our future and the community."