Magazine article Techniques

Stem East Reshapes Landscape in North Carolina

Magazine article Techniques

Stem East Reshapes Landscape in North Carolina

Article excerpt

North Carolina's rolling fields of tobacco began to dwindle in number, and cotton was in less demand as textile manufacturers moved outside the United States following passage or the North American Free Trade Agreement. The physical landscape in the state at the end of the 20th century changed--rapidly and permanently--and, consequently, so too did the economic landscape.

What could be done to keep the state a vibrant player in manufacturing and production as it entered the 21st century? How could the economy be transitioned and the necessary workforce be retooled and reshaped? North Carolina's Eastern Region (NCER), an economic development agency, recognized the impending economic evolution and devised a collaborative plan with area leaders to achieve true and lasting change--alignment of regional education and workforce development systems.

If history is a good indicator, turning around the Titanic would have been an easier chore than quickly retooling the existing education system. Unfazed though, NCER officials, well versed in the economic needs of business and industry in their 13-county territory, discerned that the education process would have to be modified lithe desired outcome was a 21st-century workforce that would attract 2 I st-century businesses--front aerospace lo life science to financial services advanced manufacturing.

The result of those deliberations was the formation of STEM East, which was launched by NCER in 201 I. With a mission to facilitate public/private partnerships, establish STEM centers and programs, and develop a strong network of STENI teachers, STEM East had a huge task spilling over its plate from the outset. Finding the right leader for this new group was a crucial first step. Only someone who could lolly understand and empathize with both sides--business and education--would be handed the reins. Enter Steve Hill, a native of the eastern region of North Carolina who was raised on a farm, earned a degree in business, became a teacher and eventually became a secondary administrator in Lenoir County. Hill's passion for his home and education was undeniable, but his ability to communicate and facilitate consensus made him the best man for the job.

Since becoming executive director of STEM East, Hill has worked tirelessly to respond to the regional workforce skills gap and help mold a new brand of ployee skilled to fill the jobs that 1i. replacing those lost when tobacco, and apparel began to wane.

Hill says STEM East members want to "grow our own.- Workforce, that is. And the early crops are already blooming. Hill, though, continues to cultivate the field and has his sights set on only one thing: a bumper crop of custom-skilled workers. STEM education is his soil of choice.

An Agent of Change

Early on, NCER acknowledged that the silo approach--each entity concerned primarily with its own processes and outcomes--would have to go away. STEM East would need to break new ground with an approach that would benefit everyone (squally and collectively. An estimated 42 percent of new jobs being created in North Carolina require at least some specialized postsecondary education, often in the STEM areas, so private industry, government organizations, community groups, schools, colleges and universities had to agree to shed their own interests in favor ol the greater good.

Air Vehicle Engineering Department Head Mark Meno with the Fleet Readiness Center (FRC) East in Craven County, one of the largest employers in the region with 3,000 in its fold, has been an active member of the STEM East movement since its inception. "If Craven County has an initiative like STEM East, but for just Craven County, it's going to be very-school-system focused. If industry does it, it's going to be, literally, do whatever you can to feed me as an industry at the expense of any well-rounded education. So, I think the reason that [STEM East] is needed is that they really don't have any vested interest other than the region. …

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