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Meeting workforce needs is focus for incoming PCC leader

Duplin County officials say Lawrence Rouse helped James Sprunt college prosper

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Lawrence Rouse, Pitt Community College's incoming president joined Duplin County leaders JoAnn Stroud, Geraldine Tucker, Anita Powers and Jonathan Merritt in a ribbon cutting ceremony for a diesel engine mechanics school at James Sprunt Community College, which Rouse has lead for more than 13 years..

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Eight of Duplin County’s largest employers are agribusinesses producing everything from meat products to sweet potatoes and peppers.

These businesses, three that collectively employ more than 3,000 people, rely on a fleet of tractor trailers to transport their products from the farmers to the processors to the stores where consumers purchase them.

But there was a problem with keeping that fleet of trucks on the move.

“Each one of those trucks had a diesel engine and they needed technicians to keep them up and running,” said Lawrence Rouse, the longtime president and CEO of James Sprunt Community College and soon-to-be president of Pitt Community College.

The companies were hiring mechanics, many from a school in Tennessee, but the employees left because they could not adjust to Duplin’s rural lifestyle. Local mechanics did not have proper training, so the companies turned to the community college.

James Sprunt responded by building a diesel engine mechanics school.

Responding rapidly to the county’s workforce needs has been Rouse’s guiding principle during his 13½ years at James Sprunt. He said it also will guide him when he becomes Pitt Community College’s fifth president effective Aug. 1.

“You have to be very agile because local business and industry, they are wanting programs right now,” Rouse said. “When they have a need they don’t want to wait a year.

“You have to figure out the best way to address that need,” he said. “I think the president’s role is to provide the resources, including human resources, equipment, facilities to make sure the college is providing those services.”

Rouse, 61, a South Carolina native, said when he had the opportunity to attend college he knew he wanted to a career that would help lift people up. While he started out as a social worker, it was his time spent as a community college counselor that showed him education was the way to empower people.

“I was sold on community colleges through day one,” Rouse said.

While PCC has only had five presidents in its 57-year history, Rouse will be its first African-American leader.

“There have been several things where I’ve been the first African-American,” Rouse said. “I was the first African-American president at James Sprunt. I look at it from the standpoint that I am an individual who has skills to offer an institution and I just happen to be African-American.

“I know I am qualified,” he said. “I know that I come with the idea that we make sure we respond to workforce needs and our students. Students come first.”

What is most important, Rouse said, is what he does to take PCC to the next level. However, he recognizes that when student see him, African-American students in particular, they will see an opportunity to be successful.

James Sprunt Community College is one of the smaller schools among the North Carolina Community College System’s 57 institutions.

Full-time enrollment for calendar year 2017-18 was 1,239 with a continuing education population of 4,500 students, bringing the school’s total population to 5,700.

Pitt Community College’s 2017-18 enrollment was 8,059. With a total credit and noncredit enrollment of nearly 23,000, PCC is the state’s sixth largest institution.

“I want an opportunity to serve even more students in a larger community in the same matter,” Rouse said. “To respond to their needs efficiently, effectively and to be agile in service to them. I’ve learned a lot in 36 years and to put that experience to use will be great at Pitt Community College.”

Kenn Thompson, vice chairman of the Duplin County Board of Commissioners, predicted Rouse would be a good fit for PCC.

“He will certainly make your community and college prosper. He’s a true leader, people gravitate toward him,” said Thompson, who also serves as James Sprunt’s general counsel.

Thompson said the first time he walked into Rouse’s office at James Sprunt, he noticed a sign that said “relax.”

“I think it was meant for the students, that he wanted to put them at ease,” Thompson said. “He’s a consummate professional and gentleman. He’s very personable, courteous and kind.”

And his background of working with business leaders will prove an asset, he said.

Beyond the college’s workforce development programs, the school has partnered with small business associations to promote business development in the county, Thompson said. The college is viewed as a beacon of light in Duplin County, he said.

Other Duplin officials also praised Rouse’s abilities.

“He has earned the respect of his professional colleagues by exercising a high standard of ethics, honesty and integrity,” said Anita R. Powers, chairwoman of James Sprunt’s Board of Trustees. “He has the ability to work collaboratively with individuals and groups and he utilizes the democratic process and exercises good judgment when making decisions.”

Duplin County Manager Davis Brinson said Rouse has grown the community college. “I think James Spunt enjoys a good reputation in the community because of him,” Brinson said.

Brinson only been in his position for three months, but the Duplin County native served 17 years as the register of deeds. He has not had to opportunity to work directly with Rouse, Brinson said, but his reputation for responding to community needs is outstanding.

Along with the diesel mechanic school, the college is in the process of building a new commercial driver’s license training facility and updating its welding labs on the main campus in Kenansville.

There also are plans to build a new facility for the school’s nursing program.

All of this is being accomplished with $4.5 million James Sprunt received from a statewide bond approved in 2016 and a $2.2 million grant the school hopes to secure through the federal Economic Development Administration.

“This is the first time we’ve done work on main campus,” Rouse said. “The other work we’ve done has been in our (county owned) industrial park.”

While he will not be around to see the projects through construction, Rouse said he is satisfied that he could get them underway. He sees it as his career coming full circle.

“When I came here 13½ years ago I did a ribbon-cutting for a building I wasn’t involved in, so now someone will do the ribbon-cutting for a building we designed as I’m heading out,” he said.

One of Rouse’s lasting accomplishments is an effort to show students who leave James Sprunt to earn four-year degrees the advantages of returning back home to work, Thompson said.

“In a rural county that’s very important,” he said. “Your (future) leaders want to leave and go work in bigger cities, biggest companies but we want those bright leaders to come back. He’s done a wonderful job getting that message out there. It’s been productive.”

Rouse said one of things that attracted him to the PCC position is the support the Pitt County community has shown the community college.

Voters approved a referendum authorizing a quarter-cent sales tax whose revenues fund capital projects for the public school system and community college. Later residents approved a $19.9 million bond that funded a new law enforcement training center and construction of the Walter and Marie Williams Science Building. Lower-than-expected bids on the Williams building also allowed PCC to fund part of the construction costs of its Early College High School building.

“We are in a county where passing bonds is not very frequent,” Rouse said.

That does not mean Rouse thinks bonds should fund every construction project.

When Rouse and his team at James Sprunt decided to launch the diesel mechanics program, they started by securing a pledge of land from Duplin County’s Board of Commissioners to construct a training facility.

His team then secured $1.7 million from the county, Golden LEAF and Tobacco Trust fund to build and equip the facility.

“We wanted to make sure it was a state-of-the-art facility,” Rouse said.

The school worked with an industry representative to design the building and the curriculum. Companies donated trucks for students to work on; one company even donated a diesel engine that hasn’t been released to the public to work on.

With that level of industry support, the school opened the facility in spring 2017. Its first class of a dozen students were certified and graduated in the fall.

With the coming school year, the college is hiring a second instructor and will offer diploma, certificate and associate degrees in the program, Rouse said.

Contact Ginger LIvingston at glivingston@reflector.com and 329-9570.

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