This is the transcript for our special bonus episode of Community Broadband Bits series, Why NC Broadband Matters. In this episode, Christopher talks with Dr. Jeff Cox and Zach Barricklow from Wilkes Community College about improving economic mobility in rural places of North Carolina. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.
Zach Barricklow: Reliable transportation and cost of transportation becomes a barrier to education, and internet is a great avenue to connect to courses online.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is another bonus episode in our special Community Broadband Bits podcast series, Why NC Broadband Matters. I'm Lisa Gonzalez with the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina nonprofit. Their mission is to attract, support and champion the universal availability of affordable, reliable, high-capacity internet access, which is necessary for thriving local communities, including local businesses and a local workforce, so each can compete in the global economy.
Lisa Gonzalez: The group has created the North Carolina Chapter of Click, the coalition for local internet choice. We're working with NZ Broadband Matters to produce this series, which focuses on issues affecting people in North Carolina, and those issues also impact people in other regions. While Christopher was in North Carolina for the Reconnect Forum, which was organized by the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina state university, he had the chance to interview Dr. Jeff Cox and Zach Barricklow from Wilkes Community College. In this interview, they discuss how community college and distance learning are playing a key role in improving economic mobility in the state, especially in rural areas. We want to thank organizers of the forum at the Institute for Emerging Issues for setting up an event that offered a great chance for advocates, experts and scholars to connect. Now here's Christopher with Dr. Jeff Cox and Zach Barricklow.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Today I'm coming to you from NC State, North Carolina State, where the Institute for Emerging Issues is having a wonderful day long program called Reconnect to Technological Opportunity, and this is one of a series of shows we're doing right now. I'm very excited to be talking with Dr. Jeff Cox, the President for Wilkes Community College in Northwestern North Carolina. Welcome to the show.
Dr. Jeff Cox: Thank you, Christopher. Glad to be here with you.
Christopher Mitchell: We also have Zach Barricklow, the Vice President of strategy, also at Wilkes Community College. Welcome to the show.
Zach Barricklow: Thanks for having us.
Christopher Mitchell: So our audience, if they are long time listeners has heard multiple interviews with Eric Kramer, Greg Coltrane, folks that are from Wilkes telephone cooperative, which has done a great job of connecting that part of the country. We haven't actually spoken to anyone from Skyline. So let's just make a quick note that that your region is very well connected by these two providers, and Wilkes has a historic telephone cooperative that has expanded with a company called RiverStreet, and people can dig in the archives to learn more about that.
Christopher Mitchell: But if you don't mind, tell me just briefly about Skyline, just so people have a sense of it.
Dr. Jeff Cox: Well, let me start with Wilkes Community College. Our service areas, Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany county. So Wilkes Communications covers the Wilkes County part of our service area as well as other areas. And Skyline, Skybest actually covers most of Ashe and Allegheny counties, as well as other areas, other counties. But those are the two in our service area that they cover.
Christopher Mitchell: I think what we'll be talking about today is how this dramatic, it's hard to overstate the amount of coverage and access you have for a rural part of any state in the United States. So we'll be talking about how that really has changed the way you do your mission, right?
Dr. Jeff Cox: Right. We think it's of critical importance for our area. We look at the map of the state and see how very well covered Northwestern North Carolina is. All three counties, really, Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany, very rural areas that people would not imagine have a strong broadband, but we do. So that's really part of our being here today and being part of this Emerging Issues Forum is how do we leverage that broadband to improve the economic mobility for the people in our service area? That's really the mission of the community college. And the work we've been doing for the last year and a half on a new strategic plan is how can the college best play a role in helping improve the economic mobility of the people who we serve? And we think this broadband connectivity is a huge, huge part of that.
Christopher Mitchell: So Zach, let me ask you, what does that look like when you operationalize that? What sort of things are you doing to bring that economic benefit to the community, now that you have this connectivity?
Zach Barricklow: There's a couple of angles we're taking to approach this. One is entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are by nature, folks that are inclined towards taking advantage of opportunity. We have historically a very entrepreneurial region and the community college is the proud home of the small business center, which is a catalyst and a source of counseling and training for small businesses and entrepreneurs in the region.
Zach Barricklow: So right now, we're working on a new platform and a new program called Startup Northwest NC, that'll cover our three counties, Ashe, Wilkes, Allegheny. And it is an aggregation of resources, and community, and counseling, and mentoring for entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs in that region.
Zach Barricklow: So, that's one first step that we're launching on March 10th actually of this year. That is partially about equipping folks with tools, whether it's training or access to capital or other things. It's connecting them with one another. Also, it's telling the story of our region. So we were featuring about 12, 13 entrepreneurs from that three county area, and all of them, from agriculture to product development to professional services, leverage the internet in the process of promoting and expanding and managing their business.
Zach Barricklow: So that's one of our first steps, is really focused on the entrepreneurs, but in our day and age with such an increase in the freelance economy, that's the other piece that we're looking really closely at. How do we identify the folks who have already found our region? Because we do enjoy a great connectivity. Folks that have found our region and are doing just fascinating work, as software engineers and consultants, and we have university professors and we have data analysts, we have instructional designers. We have folks that are in all of these kinds of niche professional services industries and that have found us. We want to do a better job as a region of telling our story and finding them proactively.
Zach Barricklow: So, that's another piece of it is cataloging those stories and getting that out there. And then for those individuals and the population in that three county area that maybe doesn't have the skill or the awareness of opportunity available to them, as a community college, we serve the educational needs of virtually everybody across the continuum of age, and ability, and interest in that three county area. And so we want to be innovative and look ahead and assess where folks are at, where the opportunity is at and how we can get them connected with it and equipped for it.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious, Dr. Cox. Are you also recruiting people? Did I understand that correctly, that you're in a position in which you're looking outside of that three county area to give people a sense of the opportunities that are available within your region?
Dr. Jeff Cox: You're absolutely right. I think this opportunity for us here with the Institute for Emerging Issues is going to give us the opportunity to showcase how you can have a great career and live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. We say we live in God's country, up there in the Northwest part of the state, and it is. It's just really, really a beautiful part of the world. But historically, I was born and raised there in that region in Allegheny County, and happy to be able to move back and live in that region.
Dr. Jeff Cox: A lot of our young people though, historically, it felt like to pursue economic opportunity, they had to leave and go to Charlotte and Raleigh and other places. So this broadband connectivity is a real leveler, in that you don't have to necessarily live in Charlotte to work for a big company in Charlotte. You don't have to live down here in the RTP to work for a company that's based here.
Dr. Jeff Cox: So yes, we're putting out the message, Northwest NC is telework ready and we're trying to recruit businesses to consider being part of the solution to this rural urban divide we have. We believe strongly that if only four or five major urban centers in North Carolina are prospering and rural North Carolina is dying, that's not sustainable for our state.
Dr. Jeff Cox: So we think this broadband connectivity can be part of the solution if we can get some companies, bold enough to really set up their policies to allow for more telework. If you've got a job that can be done remotely, we think you ought to be a helping to let your workers go to the more rural parts of the state.
Dr. Jeff Cox: We're convinced that a lot of the people who live in Raleigh and Charlotte, and battle that traffic every day, would much rather be doing that work with the serenity of our beautiful Northwest North Carolina. We just want to encourage folks to take that opportunity, if it's their choice already, and for companies to consider policies that would allow for that. And that would alleviate some overcrowding in our cities, that are just exploding with population too. We think it's a win-win.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, let me ask you a devil's advocate question, which is to say, aside from the population pressures, why doesn't it make sense to just say, "Let's just focus on having really high quality broadband and opportunity in our cities. That's where most of the people are. Why don't we just let people who want to live in a more rural area decide to do that on their own? And so what if the population crashes in rural counties?" Why is that a problem for the United States of America or for North Carolina?
Dr. Jeff Cox: Well, I think our cities are already a straining from being overpopulated. You look at the average commute time, and the amount of stress and pressure people feel, just trying to make that journey into the city. And then look at the rest of the country, the rest of our state, the vast majority is rural. So if we continue down a path where more and more folks are migrating toward the cities, and fewer and fewer people are living in the remote, more rural parts of our state and our country, it's just not sustainable over time. We have to have folks who are living out in the rural areas. And a lot of folks would prefer that.
Dr. Jeff Cox: Certainly some folks, obviously we prefer to live in the cities. And we have some of that with the young people. They feel like they need to get away from where they grew up, but many of them want to come back home.
Christopher Mitchell: Often when they have children.
Dr. Jeff Cox: Yes. Often when they are ready to have a family, then that's one of the real calling cards for our area. We have great public schools, it's a low crime rate. It's a great place to raise a family. But the challenge has been the economic opportunity. All too often, folks have had to make a decision, do I want to make more money or do I want to live where I really want to live, where I have my family ties and roots, and this connection to the beautiful area up there where we live?
Dr. Jeff Cox: So the fact that now we've got this broadband connectivity and so much more work can be done remotely, it's changed what's been a disadvantage to area, being rural and a little bit removed from the major interstates. It makes it tough to compete, when you're talking about manufacturing and jobs where you're going to be hauling a product up and down our mountains. But now with the broadband connectivity, that that kind of flips it on its head, and we actually have an advantage there.
Dr. Jeff Cox: So we've got the connectivity in very rural parts of our communities and there's nothing that would prohibit anyone from being able to access that and take advantage of it economically.
Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful. Let me ask Zach and then I want to come back to you, Jeff, to see if you want to add anything to this. But I'm curious, does your community college offer courses in a different way, or do people participate differently because the region has such good connectivity? I think there's a lot of community colleges who would love to have that, and maybe they don't have a sense of what it would be like once they do. But has it changed the way you do business?
Zach Barricklow: Yeah, it's constantly evolving, just as post secondary is evolving across the nation in every context. But, for us, there has been this recognition that we have access to internet. So, then the next question becomes do we have enough ... Well, I'll say this before even getting into internet connectivity, one of the barriers to education, to post secondary education for our citizens is transportation. We live in a rural community, and transportation barriers are very real for our population.
Christopher Mitchell: For people who don't own their own vehicles, I'm guessing?
Zach Barricklow: For people who own their own vehicles and people who don't, but just unreliable vehicles. We do have a high level of poverty in that region. And even those that are not in poverty per se, by definition, is a good portion that are struggling.
Zach Barricklow: So reliable transportation and cost of transportation becomes a barrier to education. And internet is a great avenue to connect to courses online. So over the course of the last five years, we have increased the proportion of courses and programs and credentials that we're offering online. And of course, with that, it's not just as simple as putting course material online. We have to prepare our instructors to teach it well online. So we've instituted a new professional development program, specifically aimed at increasing the skillset of an engagement level of instructors teaching online, as well as some of the academic wraparound services for students that help them with tutoring and academic support and other supports.
Christopher Mitchell: Jeff, I'm curious. One of the things that I've done. I've actually looked at things, and North Dakota and South Dakota are two other North and South States. And where there's better broadband access, we've still seen declining populations. I was hoping that it would be simple. Nothing in life was ever that simple. But I'm curious, given, let's just assume that that's the case, that you're facing multiple trends that are discouraging for people moving to your area, what are you doing to try to overcome that?
Dr. Jeff Cox: Well, we know that for particularly our young people who are leaving, there's a draw to the cities. They have more nightlife, the breweries are becoming a really popular thing with millennials. So while we have the Blue Ridge Parkway and the New River, the Kerr Scott reservoir, and the big Lake, world-class mountain bike trails. We've got that part, really in spades. We're great on all the scenic beauty and the outdoor recreation, but we know we still have work to do in our communities to create the kind of entertainment venues and just the nightlife, those kinds of things, where young people want to be able to congregate and come together.
Dr. Jeff Cox: So that part in all of our communities, we're working on to create that sense of place where people will want to come back and start their families, and hopefully live and stay until they retire.
Christopher Mitchell: I just wanted to throw in something as a longtime reader of Outside Magazine, a lover of the outdoors. It's not just a matter of having something to do on the weekends or to get away, on a nice trip. It's healthy.
Dr. Jeff Cox: Yes.
Christopher Mitchell: It makes you live a life that is healthier, and you feel better throughout it. So there's a lot to that. But I, I want to ask you a different question to wrap up, and that's, I strongly believe community colleges are really important, particularly now in a time when it seems like the winners are winning more than ever and the losers, who are left behind have less opportunity. What more do we need to do for community colleges to succeed? What other resources do you need in the current environment?
Dr. Jeff Cox: It always is about resources. When you look at the number of people that are served through our community colleges, and then compare our budgets to our universities and even our K12 partners, the amount of resources are lagging behind.
Dr. Jeff Cox: We're at a critical place with faculty and staff salaries at the community college. It's our number one budget item among our presidents association for our legislature in this coming legislative session. I tell our legislators, "Who do you want to train the nurse is going to be at your bedside when you're having some kind of critical procedure? Do you want the very best and brightest person being that instructor? And if so, then we have to compete with the local hospitals to pay that person enough to come over and be an instructor at the community college."
Dr. Jeff Cox: And right now, we're just struggling to be competitive with that area. So, we have to address that issue. But then, community college, we have an historic record of being nimble and being agile, being able to change and meet the demand. And I think that's going to be more and more important as things continue to evolve and change. We have to be at the forefront and be ready to change and meet the needs of our business and industry, so that we can train the employees that they need to continue to be successful.
Christopher Mitchell: I just want to put an exclamation point on that, I think, because people don't always realize that we have this ... People realize that we've had this long period of economic expansion for a lot of us.
Dr. Jeff Cox: Right.
Christopher Mitchell: And that really puts salary pressures on schools, to be able to keep people who may have opportunities to get a lot more money if they were to leave teaching.
Dr. Jeff Cox: Yeah. And for a lot of our folks, we know we're never going to be as competitive as someone who could go out in the private sector. You think about an applied engineering instructor, who could go out and be at a high level position in a company, or a skilled nurse with a master's degree. What they can make, we're never going to completely match that. There has to be a component for someone, that they just want to teach and they just want to be in that environment and shape the future in that way. But we've got to be more competitive, for sure.
Christopher Mitchell: Well thank you so much, and I wish you luck. I think you're living in the future of North Carolina, and with good work and hopefully five or 10 years, all the rest of North Carolina will look like your region does, and they'll be able to learn from your experiences into how to take advantage of it.
Dr. Jeff Cox: Thank you very much for having us, Christopher.
Lisa Gonzalez: Thanks for tuning in to this bonus episode in our Why NC Broadband Matters podcast series, and for listening to the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Remember to follow Christopher on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. And if you follow NC Hearts Gigabit on Twitter, you'll tap into all the NC Broadband Matters material. Thanks to Shane Ivers of silvermansound.com for the series music, What's the Angle, licensed through Creative Commons. And thank you for listening. Until next time.