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Forsyth Technical Community College

Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina is one of many community college partners involved in the 10 Regional Innovation Engines funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Two years after passage of the CHIPS and Science Act signaled the federal government’s push to grow domestic research and innovation, community colleges are emerging as a vital part of the plan.

Federal funding provided to the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a result of the landmark CHIPS and Science Act will help train the technical workforce needed to support new scientific and medical advances.

Ten regional innovation engines have so far received $15 million from the NSF to “support the development of diverse regional coalitions of researchers, institutions, companies and civil society to conduct research and development that engages people in the process of creating solutions with economic and societal impacts,” according to the NSF’s description of the regional innovation engines program, outlined in the CHIPS and Science Act.

“All of the industry and scientific research growth then turns into jobs and product creation. When you factor all those pieces of the puzzle in, that’s the role of the nation’s community colleges,” said Jee Hang Lee, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees. "Pfizer may create a new vaccine, for example. When that vaccine is created and there’s a huge outgrowth and need for that vaccine, who is the natural partner to train these individuals to meet this increased need for this product? That’s where community colleges come into play.”

Training a skilled workforce to manufacture cutting-edge medical products in a quality controlled setting is one of the aims of Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina. The college is one of multiple partners in the Piedmont Triad Regenerative Medicine Engine, a project aimed at creating and scaling breakthrough clinical therapies. The other partners include Wake Forest University School of Medicine, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and Winston-Salem State University, RegenMed Development Organization (ReMDO) and Axiom Space.

Twenty-two community college systems across the country are partners in the NSF’s 10 innovation engines and are focusing on various issues. They include the Central Florida Semiconductor Innovation Engine; the Colorado-Wyoming Climate Resilience Engine and the Great Lakes Water Innovation Engine, among others.

“It really is a moment of change and significance for the community college sector, NSF and how we go about workforce development and emerging technology fields,” said Shalin Jyotishi, senior adviser for Education, Labor, and the Future of Work at New America, a left-leaning think tank. Last week, the group hosted a public talk with Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the NSF, about the workforce impact of the regional innovation engines.

“The community college role in the engines is two-fold. It’s providing upskilling and reskilling for incumbent workers in light of the new industries the engines are catalyzing. And it’s creating pathways for new workers and students to enter these emerging industries,” Jyotishi said. “We might think community colleges aren’t the place to go if you’re interested in a career in the innovation economy, but that’s not the case.”

If Congress appropriates the full funding amounts authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act, each engine could receive up to $160 million over the next decade, though Congress has not fully funded the NSF over the past two years.

Numerous companies, including CISCO, IBM, Microsoft, and SAP Software Solutions, joined the U.S. Chamber of Congress earlier this week, in a letter asking for Congress to fully fund the NSF.

“Since its inception, the NSF has made substantial investments in academic research and education which have led to transformative innovations that have fueled our nation’s growth,” the letter said. “In the face of rapidly evolving technologies and heightened geo-political risk, it is crucial, now more than ever, that our country make the necessary investments in basic and applied research to fuel the United States’ economic competitiveness, strengthen our national security, and retain our position as a global leader in technology.”

Though it’s unclear how much NSF funding these engines will ultimately receive, the projects are already underway and poised to help meet immediate and future workforce needs. While technical and factory jobs of past decades may not have required specialized training or credentials, that’s changing as technology advances across industries.

Of the 18.5 million annual job openings projected nationwide through 2031, about 31 percent are expected to go to workers with an associate’s degree, certificate or some college credit but no degree, according to a recent report by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. But to satisfy that projected demand for workers, at least half of those credentials would have to be offered in different fields than what’s currently available in 283 of the 565 local labor markets the report examined.

Programs like the regional innovation engines are part of the solution to narrowing that gap.

‘Community Colleges Aren’t Lesser’

Some community colleges are hopeful that building out workforce training programs for high-demand fields will also change public perceptions that two-year colleges are stepping stones to more rigorous—and more prestigious—four-year universities.

“We’re thrilled, ready and excited to show that community colleges aren’t lesser,” Forsyth Tech posted on X, after First Lady Jill Biden announced the launch of the Piedmont Triad Regenerative Medicine Engine at Forsyth’s campus in January. “We’re engines for equity AND the economy. #EndCCStigma #APlaceOfPromise

Forsyth Tech is in the process of purchasing specialized equipment integral to regenerative medicine—such as a 3D bioprinter that can print new cells that can later be used to regrow human organs—and creating training programs on the technical aspects of regenerative medicine.

“Community colleges are superior when it comes to hands-on type learning because we match what employers’ needs are,” Russ Read, Forsyth Tech’s executive director for the national center for the biotechnology workforce program said, noting that community college education emphasizes both technical and “people” skills.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on working in teams, following directions, being able to communicate amongst each other and being able to comply with regulations.”

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