When Peter Johnstone, CEO of Gunboat International, talks about his decision to open his newest production plant in Wanchese, N.C., he still gets a little emotional.
Johnstone had looked at potential sites in Rhode Island and northern Florida as likely prospects for building his high-end sailing catamarans and yachts. The worldwide manufacturer hadn’t even considered North Carolina until another boat company suggested it. But after doing some research, Johnstone realized Wanchese was more than a sleepy little fishing village.
It was home to generations of boat-builders,
many of whom were out of work following the
In 2007, Johnstone said, about 1,800 skilled boat-builders were manufacturing boats in Wanchese. Two years ago, when Johnstone visited the former Buddy Davis yacht production facility - that number had dwindled to 180.
That stark statistic, and a commitment from College of The Albemarle to help get this workforce retrained, was all the incentive Johnstone needed to open his U.S. production plant in the former Buddy Davis facility, located just miles from COA’s Dare campus.
“It was one of the key factors that led us to locate here,” Johnstone said, adding that the North Carolina Department of Commerce had pledged the assistance of COA’s Workforce Development & Continuing Education program in its support package. The local community college paid for and conducted the training the company needed to retrain the area workforce.
“As part of the package to come of the state, they said they would do whatever trainings are necessary to make this happen,” Johnstone said.
Nearly two years later, Johnstone’s facility has put 75 local boat-builders back to work and it’s a statistic he’s proud of.
“We have a year-and-a-half of backorders and COA has helped make us super-competitive,” Johnstone told Sen. Bill Cook and Reps. Annie Mobley, Paul Tine, and Bob Steinburg, during COA’s Annual Legislative Forum last week. “I’m very grateful for the partnership with College of the Albemarle.”
COA President Kandi Deitemeyer used the annual event to highlight a few of the college’s success stories, illustrating how the Elizabeth City community college has helped both area businesses – and students – succeed over the past year.
Lisa Barcus, a COA alum, is one of those success stories. Before earning her Associate’s Degree in Business and a diploma in cosmetology at COA, Barcus didn’t really have a plan for her future. She had just lost her job and her son was only 6 months old at the time. Barcus said her mom suggested enrolling at COA.
“It really changed my life,” said Barcus, who opened Alice V Salon in Elizabeth City a year after graduating.
“I am so absolutely thankful for the experience of going to college. This was my second chance to shine.”
Deitemeyer said if COA is to continue helping area students and businesses reach their goals, the General Assembly needs to reinvest $32 million in funding to the state’s 58 community colleges when it reconvenes in May.
“It’s all about teaching and it’s all about learning,” Deitemeyer said. “Transforming lives and transforming communities. Taking someone from where they are, to where they want to be.”
Deitemeyer said $16.2 million in state funding would go toward supporting the highest-cost curriculum programs in fields like health sciences, engineering and biotechnology, as well as helping to fund workforce education courses. The remaining $15.8 million in funding would be earmarked to support faculty and staff increases at North Carolina community colleges, helping them remain competitive and ensure quality instruction. Community college faculty and staff are instrumental in student success, Deitemeyer said, but in North Carolina, they are paid significantly less than national and regional averages.
Currently, Deitemeyer added, North Carolina’s average faculty salary ranks 11th in the 16 states represented in the southeast region, and the state ranks 41st nationally.
“I don’t want to pay my faculty an average wage
because I don’t want average people,” Deitemeyer
said, adding that North Carolina’s Jobs Plan for 2014-2024, identifies education and workforce development as a key in developing and retaining a globally competitive workforce. The state plan also identifies rural prosperity – spreading jobs and investment to the rural areas of the state – as a significant contributor to creating jobs in the future. Deitemeyer said rural prosperity is another reason reinvestment in the state’s community colleges – and COA in particular – is critical.
COA serves students in seven counties throughout rural northeastern North Carolina. This seven-county service area makes it the largest in the state.
“Retraining is the key to putting the unemployed to work and there’s a high rate of employment in northeast North Carolina,” Johnstone said.
He said the assistance he received from COA’s Workforce Development program, and the free customized training it provided, was the reason he opened his facility in Wanchese.
Retraining the local boat-builders, so they could learn the high-tech infusion laminating process Gunboat uses to produce its catamarans, was essential to the production of his boats. COA held several training sessions at the new plant in 2012 and 2013, and even arranged for an industry expert to lead the training and develop an in-house training course that is taken by all of Gunboat’s new hires.
“They came up with a one-week course and brought in the leading infusion laminating specialist worldwide,” Johnstone said. “And they led three different training weeks. It was terrific.”
If COA is expected to continue retraining the local workforce and help local companies and students remain competitive, Deitemeyer said, area legislators need to reinvest $32 million in funding during the upcoming fiscal year.
Area legislators in attendance at COA’s legislative forum agreed that finding the funding to invest in the state’s community colleges is a top concern.
“When we talk about limited resources, you have to talk about priorities,” Tine said, adding that funding of transportation and education are the two biggest issues facing the state.
“Those two things are the most transformative priorities at the state level,” Tine added.
Without the support of the General Assembly, Deitemeyer said, the mission of COA and other community colleges could be in jeopardy.
“Community colleges are essential to North Carolina’s economic recovery,” Deitemeyer said. “We’re asking the General Assembly to make a reinvestment of $32 million. That’s not new money, it’s already there. You need to leave it here if you want us to continue the great things we’ve been doing.”