Point of View

North Carolina's significant skills gap

January 14, 2013 

As North Carolina embarks on a new year, state leaders are contemplating what actions should be taken in 2013 to more effectively grow jobs, strengthen the economy and build for a better tomorrow. It’s an interesting time, but a significant challenge threatens to block progress.

Education attainment, or lack thereof, is the issue, and it’s poised to singlehandedly decide North Carolina’s economic future and whether North Carolinians will enjoy greater prosperity and a better quality of life.

When it comes to education beyond high school, North Carolina ranks a disappointing 27th in America. Fewer than 4 in 10 adults (37 percent) hold at least an associate’s degree, and that’s troubling when you consider that a study – by Georgetown University – found that 59 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require some form of postsecondary education or training by 2018.

The gap between where North Carolina is and where it needs to be is significant, and that reality requires state and local leaders to act upon the critical connection that exists between economic prosperity and education beyond high school. Some still question that connection, but the Great Recession made the relationship painfully clear.

During the Great Recession 2008-2010, four out of five jobs that were lost were held by Americans with a high school education or less. Sadly, this same group is still losing jobs during our so-called recovery that began in 2010.

By comparison, Americans with bachelor’s degrees or above have been steadily gaining jobs – even during the recession – and have seen an increase of more than 2 million jobs during the recovery. That’s good news for North Carolinians with degrees and high-quality certificates, but significantly more of them are needed statewide.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of North Carolina’s talent shortage comes from the fact that area employers cannot find enough skilled people to fill all of their job openings. A scan of classified ads from around the state reveals that there are more than 1,500 job openings in the fields of engineering, medical and technology alone. Those jobs are open today, and if employers are unable to find the talent they need locally, they will look to fill those jobs elsewhere.

State and local leaders must find a way to supply the labor market with more people who have the knowledge and skills required. That certainly starts by more effectively preparing students for success beyond high school and by making college more affordable.

It also requires a redesign of the educational institutions that provide for accelerated degree programs and greater opportunity for success among low-income students, first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, veterans and adults with some college, but no degree.

The work won’t be easy, but targeted efforts can yield big results. For example, there are more than 1.2 million adults (roughly 23 percent of the adult population) in North Carolina who started college but have never earned degrees. Many of these adults are only a few credit hours short.

If state and local leaders create a pathway that allows just 20 percent of these people to complete their degrees, North Carolina would add an additional 240,000 degree holders to its ranks and help address the state’s skills gap.

Every state across America is grappling with the challenge of how to grow jobs, investment and individual opportunity. The challenge here is no different. To succeed, North Carolina desperately needs more people with postsecondary credentials and degrees.

Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, a private nonprofit based in Indianapolis focused on graduating more students from college.

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