The Great Recession walloped Hickory's businesses starting in 2007. It also led local leaders to forge a new plan.
Between 2007-2009, world financial markets, banking, and real estate experienced a massive economic downturn. Now known as the Great Recession, this crisis led to home mortgage foreclosures and caused many to lose their homes, life savings, and jobs.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, Garrett Hinshaw and other local leaders began brainstorming.
“When I was on the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce board, Danny Hearn, CEO of the Chamber, and I agreed that Catawba County’s economic sustainability and vitality would rely on the future workforce that we could create through our educational systems,” Hinshaw said.
Hinshaw has served as president of Catawba Valley Community College since 2006. He served on the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce board of directors between 2008-2014, including a stint as chairman from 2011-2013.
“They (Chamber members) had needs and we (educational partners) had the ability to address those needs. But we needed their commitment to engage and provide both human capital and financial assistance in order to differentiate our educational system from others in the region,” Hinshaw explained.
As a result, Champions of Education was created. It encouraged private businesses to invest in Catawba County’s educational system and encouraged educational partners to identify strengths and weaknesses.
“Champions of Education helped us to build the relationships necessary between business and education to create outcomes that would positively impact our community,” Hinshaw said.
As the partnership progressed, Hinshaw and others saw the need for a formalized program that would help students and industries make connections. Education Matters was created in 2009 to generate partnerships between local business, government and education in Catawba and Alexander counties.
Tracy Hall, currently the executive director of the Catawba Science Center, served as the executive director for Education Matters. She described Education Matters as a way to, “help better prepare students, so that they are more aware of local careers and how to plan for those careers through education and training in the region.”
Business and industries involved in the partnership committed to set a preference that employed candidates ages 25 and younger and who have a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent, which provided an incentive for students to finish high school. Part of the commitment also included a pledge by businesses to encourage their employees to get involved in schools and opportunities that connected students to the working world.
During this time, economic incentive packages offered to businesses moving to Catawba County also required the business to participate in Education Matters.
The educational commitment included a handful of signature events. These included the Extreme STEM tour for eighth-graders, the CVCC Extravaganza for 10th-graders, and high school juniors and seniors creating an education portfolio that included a NC Career Readiness certificate.
“Over the years, CVCC took ownership of Education Matters and provided Extreme STEM Tours for over 16,000 middle school students in Catawba County,” Hinshaw said. “These tours involved connecting students with business and industry at their business locations and then showing these students the pathways in education for them to be ready to go to work upon completion of workforce valued credentials.”
Education Matters came to an end in 2019. “When I left my position at CVCC, resources were directed to other areas,” said Hall.
“The program was a huge success and created the foundation for Catawba County to go even further with the creation of K-64,” added Hinshaw. “K-64 would not have been established without the evolution of Champions of Education and the success of Education Matters.”
In 2016, the Catawba County Board of Commissioners was presented with data indicating a projected gradual decline in the working age population of the county.
“(The data) revealed that by 2035, we would have 10,000 unfillable jobs because our population is decreasing,” said Jennifer Jones, K-64 business liaison. “The commissioners decided that they needed to address that decline and put together a strategic plan. The education piece of their strategic plan is K-64.”
K-64 fosters collaboration between education, government, and business to develop, attract, and retain a talent pool to meet growing workforce demands in Catawba County.
The initiative was officially put into action in 2017 once the county commissioners signed the charter, hired a governing board of directors, and created committees to address six guiding priorities.
“(Garrett) Hinshaw and Mark Story were the visionaries behind K-64, and they collaborated with the county commissioners to develop the program,” said Jones. Story was the founding chief executive officer of K-64 until his death in February 2020. Hinshaw is currently serving as the interim CEO.
“The pillars of K-64 are reflective of all of the previous initiatives in education in Catawba County over the past 20 years,” said Hinshaw. “It continues our pursuit of creating superior talent for a future workforce that is second to none, while giving Catawba County a competitive edge in economic development.”
The pillars Hinshaw mentioned include one-to-world technology, teacher technology training, character education, employer engagement, work-based learning and career adaptability. The pillars have been fashioned into a symbolic triangle.
The base of this triangle — and K-64’s first priority — is one-to-world technology. “In the last three years through the support of the Catawba County Commissioners, K-64 has invested more than $4 million to provide Chromebooks for all sixth-12th-graders,” Jones said.
Chris Reese, K-64 business liaison, explained that this allowed school districts to move existing devices to elementary school students. “We can’t profess 100 percent, but we got the majority of (students) covered, even through kindergarten,” he added.
“From what we’ve heard from our educational partners, it’s been an amazing thing for teachers and students to be able to communicate and expand learning opportunities,” Jones said.
Although students have had access to devices for the past few years, education leaders clearly saw the value of one-to-world technology once the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“Little did any of us know that COVID-19 was coming and how critical these devices were going to be to our county,” Jones said. She explained that not all school districts were equipped with devices for students, and some schools across the state were forced to scramble to move school lessons forward.
“It’s really a credit to the county commissioners and all the stakeholders who started this years ago,” Reese said. “You can’t just automatically drop $4 million in a bucket and say, ‘Let’s go buy some computers real quick.’”
As K-64 continues to provide one-to-world technology to Catawba County students, educators are trained on best practices in using technology in the classroom and in character education.
“The end result of character education is soft skills,” Jones said. “When we talk with businesses, we hear from so many of them that the greatest skill gap today is soft skills.” These skills include communication, being on time, working as a team, and so on.
To address this, K-64 purchased curriculum focused on character development for schools to implement. The organization also funded a research-based screening tool to individualize character education.
Another way K-64 is preparing Catawba County students for the workforce is through employer engagement and work-based learning. These two priorities connect students to local businesses and industries and vice versa.
“We’re working with local business and industry to engage them with education,” Jones said. “We’re asking (them) what skills their current and future workforce need so that we can align education programs for learners of all ages to meet those needs.”
Reese explained that the benefit of work-based learning is twofold. Not only does it provide students with real-world experience, it also opens the door for students to find a job locally.
“Something as simple as a student doing an internship with a company while they’re in high school might be the connection that allows them to explore job opportunities here in Catawba County,” he said.
Jones said this encourages students to work and stay in Catawba County after graduation.
“Many of today’s younger generation move away to metropolitan areas and never return to rural areas to work,” she explained. “This is a nationwide issue that is impacting Catawba County, as well, and one that we’re addressing with work-based learning to expose students to local careers and provide businesses with the opportunity to invest in and develop local talent.”
Jones, Reese and their team plan to continue making strides in these five priorities. The plan for the coming years is to also begin working on the sixth priority: Career adaptability, which provides adult learners opportunities to develop needed skills to adapt to industry needs.
“We’ve made great strides in our first three priorities,” Jones said. “Especially in light of COVID, it is critical that we focus heavily on our other three priorities — employer engagement, work-based-learning, and career adaptability. I think we’re going to have a lot of folks who need to re-skill or up-skill to get back in the workforce again, and we are here to connect them with the training to fill the workforce needs in Catawba County.”
Visit www.K-64learning.org to learn more, and contact Jennifer Jones (email@example.com) to schedule a tour of the Workforce Solutions Complex at CVCC, to learn how K-64 can help meet your talent needs, and how to become a K-64 Business Partner.
Emily Willis is a general assignment and education reporter at the Hickory Daily Record.