Free community college? Wake County leaders debate $1 million for blue-collar programs.

This female contractor says #moveoverbob

Angela Cacace left a successful career in barbering to start her own construction business and enrolled in the Building Construction Technologies program at Central Carolina Community College. She was surprised when half the students were women.
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Angela Cacace left a successful career in barbering to start her own construction business and enrolled in the Building Construction Technologies program at Central Carolina Community College. She was surprised when half the students were women.

Wake Tech students interested in welding, plumbing and other trades could find their tuition covered under a county leader’s proposal.

Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria asked his fellow commissioners Monday to support $1 million per year to cover the tuition for more than 600 students in seven trade programs. It could help students enter the workforce more quickly to fill a labor shortage, he said.

Most students pursuing certificates or trades majors go to school part-time, and this “last dollar” scholarship could move some of them to full time. Depending on credits, tuition ranges from $199 to $1,384 for the spring semester. Students would still have to make full use of other scholarships and financial aid.

“I am pleased to see the support of my colleagues in principle,” Calabria said afterward. “Now we have work toward figuring out some of the details.”

But some board members said the plan takes a piecemeal approach and comes after they’ve already started their budget discussions.

“We need to back up, reset and look at how we can integrate what we are trying to do to maximize what we want to do,” said Commissioner James West.

Skilled trade workers needed

Calabria’s free-tuition pitch would cover:

  • Air conditioning, heating and refrigeration technology
  • Electrical Systems Technology
  • Emergency Medical Science
  • Heavy Equipment Operator
  • Mechanical Engineering Technology
  • Plumbing
  • Welding Technology

There is a shortage of those skilled workers in Wake County and the community college has space for those students, Calabria said.

“The supply of skilled tradespeople is not keeping pace with demand,” according to the proposal documents. “After decades of emphasizing bachelor’s degrees, both the Triangle and our state as a whole need more skilled professionals. Baby Boomers are retiring from their jobs in construction, manufacturing, masonry, carpentry, and engineering, while younger generations are either struggling for work or looking for jobs outside of these industries.”

WakeTech staff members, including newly selected President Scott Ralls, were on hand Monday to answer commissioners’ questions.

West suggested the county consider a pilot program that focuses on low-income census tracts and includes a citizen engagement process.

“The people who have the greatest problems, they know more about the problem than anyone else,” he said.

Commissioner Susan Evans felt conflicted. It’s a valuable idea, she said, but there are other pressing needs.

“I am a wee bit uncomfortable getting this initiative put before me at this moment and time and expected to figure out how to make a decision about whether we want to consider this in this year’s budget when we already have so many other competing needs and expansion requests we, perhaps, will not be able to fund,” she said.

The county has approved other projects presented in a similar manner or under a “condensed time line,” said Commissioner Sig Hutchinson.

“I’d also like to remind this board that we just gave a $4 million park to Fuquay-Varina,” he said, referencing the controversial decision to give the former Crooked Creek Golf Course to the town of Fuquay-Varina after deciding not to use it for a park. “So that being said, $1 million is a small down payment for the lives it is going to change in the process.”

Property tax increase expected

Wake County voters approved three bonds last year which will likely require a 3.8-cent property tax rate increase. That would be an increase of nearly $114 on the county property tax bill of a $300,000 home in Wake County.

A $1 million budget request isn’t a small number given the other requests the county is considering, said Commissioners Chair Jessica Holmes.

“We have a goal of great governance,” she said. “Quite frankly, there have been decisions that have been made by this board outside of [a] process and part of that was there were not processes in place. And it was majority rule. So because an item was placed on the agenda in the past does not mean it should have been, nor should it mean we should continue practices that do not encourage good governance.”

The county can’t be paralyzed by multiple priorities, Calabria said, adding this is the best time to do this type of program.

“Certainly resources are limited,” he said. “Certainly we have a lot to do, but to get this kind of synergy with one of our very best partners and some of the best people in the country at doing this work who have already demonstrated interconnections with the school system and so many others. You don’t get a program this cool or this efficient or this well designed to knock down multiple problems at all the same time.”

The commissioners will discuss the proposal at an upcoming committee meeting and were asked to provide questions for WakeTech in the coming weeks.

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