This is the second installment of a series about economic development in the Border Belt, which encompasses Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties.
For years, Jeff Howard watched eastern Columbus County struggle to create opportunities for people because of poor internet access. The pandemic has made it even worse.
“When you go from just a few people needing internet access to everyone needing it, that’s a big issue,” he said. “That is a huge roadblock to being able to learn and have those tools available at your fingertips.”
Howard knows firsthand the importance of technology. He’s worked in Information Technology (IT) for more than 20 years at International Paper in Riegelwood. “Every business relies on Information Technology,” he said. “The need for it is just as important as a doctor is to a medical facility.”
In the early 1990s, Howard didn’t know what he wanted to do in life and worked in a warehouse at E.I. Dupont De Nemours and Company, which is known for technological innovations across multiple industries. One day, he happened to meet two computer techs there and took the opportunity to ask them about their career paths. “These gentlemen came to work clean, they went home clean, and they had a really cool job,” he said.
Howard was interested but didn’t have the necessary education. “I knew I would not be able to walk in and ask for the job without proper training,” he said. That’s when Howard decided to go back to school. He earned an associate’s degree in IT and then a bachelor’s degree in business. After graduation, Howard returned to E.I. Dupont as a computer specialist, but in 1999 moved to International Paper as a local infrastructure support analyst.
Since then Howard has moved up within his department and now oversees four employees. He helps production workers, electricians, engineers and everyone in between with the basics — like accessing email — to the advanced — like analyzing quality metrics. “In every aspect of the mill, there’s IT infrastructure,” he said. “If you take that out of the mix, they can’t ship anything out of this mill.”
Howard also helps new hires with computers and provides specialized training to employees who want a promotion. “Having those skills allows them to move up,” he said, adding that, if they don’t stay at International Paper, “They can take those skills and use them with another employer.”
This is why Howard believes that education is integral to workforce development. He also acknowledges, however, that workforce development is not a one-size-fits-all approach. “Not every child was built to go to a four-year school,” he said, adding that training, certificates and associate’s degrees at community colleges are great options. “Those students that graduate from those programs are getting jobs.”
The internet obstacle
The biggest hurdle to ensuring access to educational resources is internet access, according to Howard. Some areas don’t have any access, and other areas might have one provider who has a monopoly over the market and can increase prices for basic service.
Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC), which was established in 1955 in Brunswick County, is trying to address the issue. Using state and federal grants, it has since moved into Columbus County, providing broadband access in Fair Bluff, Tabor City, Bug Hill, North and South Whiteville, and Lees.
ATMC hasn’t yet reached Riegelwood, where Howard lives, but plans to expand into that area soon, according to spokesperson Victoria Bellamy. “We’re moving in that direction,” she said. “Kids in those areas, businesses in those areas shouldn’t have to suffer.”
Because of poor internet access, Riegelwood has struggled to attract new businesses, according to Howard. “Other industries would love to come here and provide jobs,” he said. “Not having that infrastructure keeps businesses away.”
Southeastern Community College President Chris English agreed that the lack of broadband access could deter companies from coming into the county, but also noted that it presents a bigger issue in workforce development: Columbus County residents who need or want more training might not be able to participate in stackable credentialing at Southeastern Community College. “Because of COVID-19 right now, most of our training is online,” he said. “If you don’t have good internet service, then that might take you out of that class.”
Howard is especially concerned about the lack of internet access. He is passionate, he adds, about giving educational opportunities to people who are down on their luck, and even helps provide scholarships and mentoring programs to New Hanover County youth. Howard knows that internet access plays a key role in securing those opportunities. “We want our communities, those individuals who need specialized training, to have access,” he said. “They’re the future. They are the workforce that’s coming.”
Until his vision becomes reality, Howard will continue to make a difference at International Paper, one computer at a time.