In 2016, the defining political debate in North Carolina is over what it really takes to grow an economy that works for everyone—an economy that creates enough jobs for everyone who wants one and ensures that those jobs pay enough to make ends meet and achieve middle class prosperity. Amidst the hullaballoo over taxes, trade and HB2 in this election season, it’s easy to overlook one of the most powerful avenues policymakers can take to build this kind of economy—growing the number of workers with post-high school education.
By improving the post-secondary education of North Carolina’s workers—especially those with the lowest incomes and lowest skill levels—policymakers can both create more pathways to the middle class and make the state more economically competitive for businesses.
As North Carolina continues to shift from an economy based on manufacturing to one based on providing services, too many of the state’s workers are faced with the reality that full-time work no longer guarantees a pathway to the middle class. Jobs in manufacturing industries that once provided families with enough income to make ends meet are being replaced by jobs in service industries that all too often end up locking workers into a lifetime of low-wage work.
One key to unlocking more opportunity for workers is strategically investing in skills training and education for adults as a tool for preparing them for the jobs of the future. By 2020, researchers from Georgetown University estimate that 61 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require some kind of postsecondary training or education. Yet just 26 percent of the state’s working-age population (ages 18 to 64) has some post-secondary education, and little more than a third have actually completed an associate’s degree, according to data from the Working Poor Families Project. And these attainment numbers are even lower among workers of color, who trail the state average by significant margins. Additionally, only 20 out of every 10,000 workers in North Carolina have some type of industry-specific certificate or credential.
The shortage of workers with these credentials, occupational skills, and basic education puts North Carolina at a significant disadvantage for attracting and growing skill-intensive businesses in the state. For all the tax dollars spent on economic development incentives, the state’s defining competitive edge in the global economy is rooted in the skills of its workforce and the educational institutions like universities and community colleges that continually develop those skills.
The good news is that North Carolina’s community colleges are already pointing the way towards a solution. Programs like “Basic Skills Plus” (BSP) combine adult basic education in reading, writing, and math with occupation-specific training curricula. These programs allow students to make progress towards an associate’s degree and earn a certificate or credential necessary for advancement within a specific industry or occupation like welding, air conditioning repair, nursing or automotive systems. And the results are encouraging—in the 2012-2013 academic year, four times as many BSP participants successfully complete credential programs as students in other, traditional programs. Moreover, almost a third of BSP students remained in occupational training programs upon completing their basic education requirements.
Another exciting example involves the participation of multiple campuses (including Wake Tech, Central Piedmont, Davidson, Guilford Tech, and Martin Community College) in “Completion by Design,” a Gates Foundation initiative that allowed these colleges to experiment with a range of programs designed to improve degree attainment. Interventions include streamlining course listings, paring back unnecessary and overly burdensome course requirements, providing intensive academic and career counseling and linking students to occupation-specific training pathways—all geared towards ensuring that students can enter community college with clear goals and then leave with the successful completion of a degree.
While these programs represent positive steps forward for North Carolina’s workers, the bad news is that they have not received sufficient funding to fully meet the scale of the state’s workforce challenges. Taking BSP as an example, the program enrolled 1,233 students during 2011-2013. Yet this is a drop in the bucket of the 1.6 million North Carolinians who had some post-secondary education but lacked a degree. Despite this gap, the General Assembly has kept funding for this successful program flat over the past five years, while at the same time providing insufficient investment in general community college programs.
This lack of investment is no way to train the workforce of the future. North Carolina’s community colleges are taking great strides in training the state’s workers, and it’s time they were given the resources they need to finish the job. In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly should work with whoever is elected Governor to end the state’s pattern of neglect in this area and make post-high school education a much bigger priority.
Allan Freyer is the Director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.
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