Politics & Government

Less than half of NC’s workforce has a degree past high school. These leaders want to change that.

Gov. Roy Cooper addresses attendees of myFutureNC’s event at NCSU on Wednesday, Feb. 20.
Gov. Roy Cooper addresses attendees of myFutureNC’s event at NCSU on Wednesday, Feb. 20.

In North Carolina, 67 percent of jobs require more than just a high school degree, but less than half of our workforce is prepared to take them on. Just 49 percent of 25 to 44 year olds — 1.4 North Carolinians total — have achieved some form of postsecondary education.

The myFutureNC Commission wants to change that.

After a year of analysis, research and bridge building with industries and stakeholders across the state, the commission announced its new achievement goal Wednesday. It wants to see 2 million 25 to 44 year olds with high-quality postsecondary degrees or credentials by 2030. That would be around two thirds of the projected state population in that age range.

Dale Jenkins, co-chairman of the commission and CEO of Medical Mutual Holdings, said he has seen the changes in North Carolina’s job opportunities firsthand.

“I grew up in Rutherford County. There were probably 50 or 60 textile mills,” Jenkins said. “Today there are none.”

Jenkins pointed out the decline in blue collar jobs and the unequal distribution of educational opportunity across the state.

“This is nothing short of a crisis,” he said.

In addition to the final attainment goal, the commission recommends tracking other metrics, including pre-k enrollment, 4th and 8th grade NAEP proficiency, ACT composite scores, K-12 absenteeism, high school graduation rates, and postsecondary enrollment and completion rates.

Commission members also want to track labor market related data such as the share of young adults enrolled in school or working, the overall labor force participation rate, the share of mid-career adults with family income at or above a living wage, and current and forecasted workforce demand compared to the supply of graduates.

‘State led by locally owned’

Peter Hans, another co-chairman of the Commission and president of the North Carolina Community College System, said that there will be county and regional goals in addition to statewide goals. In an interview after the event, Hans described the project as “state led but locally owned.”

Hans and Jenkins also said that we need to focus on collaboration across the three silos of education: K-12, community colleges and other universities.

If North Carolina isn’t able to meet these goals, the commission projects that 400,000 people will be left behind.

“The outlook for folks who don’t have postsecondary degrees or high quality credentials is not as promising. Quite frankly, it is not the way it used to be 20 or 30 years ago when you could find meaningful employment,” Jenkins said.

Blue-collar jobs might be disappearing, but myFutureNC hopes to illuminate many other paths to a steady career.

“For instance, at community college, we have the traditional academic programs which lead to a two-year degree, or the college transfer courses that lead to a very affordable path for a four-year degree,” Hans said. “We also have short-term workforce training opportunities. These are eight- to 12-week programs in construction, transportation, information technology, manufacturing, public safety and healthcare which can lead to good wages and very meaningful careers in a short amount of time.”

After the event, Jenkins spoke about his hopes that the business sector can work with educators to make sure students are leaving schools with the skills they need.

“The skills that are required today to be successful in the business community are perhaps different than they have been in the past, so we have to have a coordinated effort between business and educators to tailor make programs of education that make sense for the jobs that are being created in the future,” Jenkins said. “There’s an estimate that says that since 2009, 99 percent of the jobs that have been created require a degree beyond high school.”

The commission reports that 50 percent of North Carolina employers cannot find the skilled employees that they need. At the announcement, Gov. Roy Cooper emphasized the importance of a skilled workforce in attracting businesses to the state.

“We’re out recruiting jobs for our state, and we’re doing a good job of it,” Cooper said. But to keep up, Cooper said North Carolina needs a skilled workforce and a strong education pipeline to prepare that workforce.

Investing properly in education

He also said that we will need to make sure to invest in education properly. Cooper advocated a focus on finish line grants, or financial aid that makes sure students can complete their education despite unexpected financial challenges such as health care costs or car trouble. He also said North Carolina should pursue free community college, ensuring that those degrees are accessible.

In a separate interview, the governor said he hoped future work toward this goal would be well funded.

“We’ve got to stop these tax breaks for very wealthy. We’ve got to stop the tax breaks for corporations that are across the board, and instead use that money to invest in education and making sure people get their credentials and degrees. And I hope that that’s part of the strategy that we develop here,” Cooper said. “Because we know that money doesn’t grow on trees, and we know that the taxpayers expect their money should be invested in the right ways. Most people support investment in education, and we know how many people are just struggling to make ends meet and providing education on top of that can make it more difficult.”

The initial work of the commission was funded by private grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Goodnight Educational Foundation, the Belk Endowment and the Lumina Foundation.

Jenkins advocated auditing current education spending before adding any more money.

“It will require resources. It’s definitely going to require contributions from the government. I think businesses will step up, but I do think we need to think in terms of how we spend our money,” Jenkins said. “It’s not always about spending more money, it’s about spending wisely.”

“It will require investment throughout the education continuum, but I think you’ve seen here today bipartisan commitment to both meeting the goal and forming the strategies that allow us to achieve it,” Hans said.

Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.