Western Carolina University provides educated workforce for area industries

June 13, 2019

Nearly 10 years ago, Robert Foster, director of hotel operations for Biltmore Farms Hotels in Asheville, accepted an invitation from Western Carolina University to attend its career fair. Foster went primarily to do “a little volunteer work,” he said, and to have lunch with his two children who were students there at the time.

Little did he know his casual entrance into what was then a humble jobs fair would lead to a years-long relationship with WCU that would help shape his company’s plan to develop a high-quality workforce. Biltmore Farms owns four hotels in the Asheville area and has developed various commercial and residential properties.

“One of my main focuses here was to build bench strength so that we have people in the pipeline being trained and developed for management openings,” he said.  “We sat down five or six years ago and built an internship program. This year we’re going to have five or six interns, as a company, and the majority are Western Carolina students.”

As WCU’s career fair grew, so did the influence of the university’s Center for Career and Professional Development and College of Business on the region’s growing legions of businesses and industries needing well-educated workers. Foster said Biltmore Farms was quick to see the value of WCU’s students. “We continue to pursue collaboration with Western because we’ve gotten great students who have learned how to work through projects and timelines,” Foster said. “They’re all very prompt and responsible.”

And they fill a hiring gap in a tight job market, he added. “With unemployment so low and a lack of trained talent, WCU helps us fill the gaps with students who are not only educated in their field, but also equipped with strong soft skills that make a world of difference in our industry.”

One of those students is Sarah Lorenz, who graduated from WCU with degrees in business management and business marketing in 2018. She began her internship on May 31, 2018, two weeks after graduating. She was hired as a human resources assistant at the company’s corporate office on Aug. 8, 2018, the day her internship ended.

Lorenz said she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she graduated, but the internship gave her the chance to learn different aspects of business and discover those that appealed to her. “The internship helped me build a practical understanding of business functions that stemmed from my education at WCU,” Lorenz said.

Lorenz said WCU prepared her well for her transition from college student to professional employee, allowing her to enter the workforce confident in her skills. “Western Carolina provided a great foundation of knowledge through the College of Business about business functions, structures and concepts, which then I could demonstrate to potential employers.”

Central to Lorenz’s success was WCU’s Center for Career and Professional Development, which has responded proactively to meet the hiring needs of area businesses and industries by preparing WCU students to become in-demand employees, said Steve Bridges, associate director of employer engagement for the CCPD. Bridges credits the center’s staff and the faculty from WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program with finding creative ways to bring students and employers together. Developing relationships, he said, is key to the CCPD’s success with aiding business and industry across the region.

“We want to become partners with our employers and go beyond the career fair to give them many different methods by which to interact with our students,” Bridges said. “We are also always listening for opportunities for the other resources here on campus, whether that be accessing faculty, utilizing the Rapid Center, or coordinating volunteer and service opportunities.”

Foster said the partnership he has developed with WCU has paid off in the quality of students who apply for internships. “We appreciate working with Western staff and faculty because they are so supportive in the process of matching potential interns and referring to us,” Foster said. “A lot of our Western interns are direct referrals from the staff and faculty.”

Bridges said the CCPD has worked hard to make itself the “go-to” resource on campus for students to prepare to interact with potential employers. “Many WCU faculty members understand the importance of professional skill development in addition to the academics, and that has led to several good partnerships between CCPD and faculty to deliver these resources to our students.”

Providing an educated workforce for Western North Carolina businesses and industries is part of WCU’s commitment to regional economic development, said Alison Morrison-Shetlar, the university’s interim chancellor. “As a regional comprehensive university, economic development and workforce talent development in Asheville and beyond to support local and regional small business and industry success are key components of our institutional mission,” Morrison-Shetlar said.