Op-Ed

Closing the skills gap through Connect NC

If North Carolina is serious about driving sustained economic growth by strengthening higher education to prepare our future workforce and closing the “skills gap,” we need to pass the Connect NC bond referendum March 15.

To stay competitive in a global economy that is increasingly knowledge- and technology-driven, North Carolinians must be prepared to fill the jobs of the future – jobs that will require levels of education beyond high school.

According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2020, 67 percent of all future jobs in our state will require post-secondary education – whether that is certifications, an associate’s degree or a four-year degree. Even more advanced education will be required for some of the fastest-growing occupations in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM fields. Unfortunately, many North Carolinians will not have the education required for those jobs, which could result in a significant worker shortage just as our economy is getting stronger.

We know firsthand how difficult it can be to fill jobs, especially those in the technology industries so prevalent here in the Triangle and across the state. For example, at SAS, it may take as long as two years to fill positions in areas such as operations research and machine learning. Likewise, AT&T often faces challenges in finding enough people with advanced technical skills and the educational background needed for some positions, such as software engineers or network engineers.

Our companies are only two of the many experiencing skills gaps in STEM fields, as these gaps exist across numerous industry sectors. Experts predict significant growth in the financial services industry, professional and business services, wholesale and retail trade, healthcare services and a rebounding manufacturing industry, especially in the high-tech area. These occupations will also require education beyond high school.

In addition, it is increasingly vital for workers to have “soft skills” such as clarity in communication, collaboration, critical thinking and respect for diversity. All too often, these people skills can be a challenge, especially for some younger workers.

North Carolina must have the long-term vision to ensure our higher education system has the capacity and services to help students develop the skills successful businesses require.

Connect NC is key to closing these critical gaps. Through the bond issue, our universities and community colleges can nurture and develop our future talent pool. Investments through Connect NC will help students attain necessary degrees and certifications, preparing them to enter high-growth, in-demand careers in North Carolina companies – and closing the skills gap that has the potential to inhibit economic growth.

The bond package will support new research, technology and innovation across all of our universities and community colleges. Connect NC will also fund new buildings, along with much-needed repairs and renovations at facilities across the state.

The 20-year funding under this bond will improve our state over time, without any increase in taxes or any harm to our state’s strong credit rating. Moreover, this funding will support other initiatives vital to our state’s competitiveness, including parks, safety, recreation and water and sewer infrastructure investments.

The investments in our state from Connect NC are critical to sustained economic growth and continued success in our global economy. Connect NC investments will benefit all North Carolinians. Whether you are an alum of North Carolina’s university or community college system, have or had a child in the system, or simply want our state to have the best-skilled workforce in the country, you will benefit from Connect NC.

The need for educational resources continues to grow. In the 15 years since the last statewide bond referendum, 2 million people have moved here – and that trend continues. We must support efforts like Connect NC to meet the demands of that growth.

North Carolina has always prided itself on being a leader in education. We need to demonstrate that continued leadership and improve North Carolina’s higher education systems by voting “yes” for the Connect NC bond referendum March 15.

Ann Goodnight is senior director of Community Relations at SAS and an honorary Connect NC chair. Vanessa Harrison is president of AT&T-North Carolina and serves on the Connect NC working committee.

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