In Round Table

 Education Round Table

Successful economic development requires a multifaceted approach. It needs the right policy, opportunities and workforce. North Carolina is blessed with strong university and community-college systems that produce smart and able graduates. But businesses need workers who also have skills specific to their industries and ones not taught in a traditional classroom setting. Business North Carolina magazine assembled a panel of education and business experts to explore the workforce training businesses need and how they can support educators.

The discussion was moderated by Ben Kinney, publisher of Business North Carolina magazine. It was hosted by MCNC. Corning Inc. provided support. The transcript was edited for brevity.


How important is education to businesses?

EBERT: It’s critical for success now and in the future. As the No. 1 consumer of talent, businesses have a keen interest in its development. The North Carolina Chamber estimates that the state’s population will grow by 3 million in 15 years. We’ll need at least a million new jobs. Talent development is the first step to creating them. A state’s human capital will determine how it thrives economically. We believe North Carolina will be one of the successful ones. Our Vision 2030 plan outlines economic strategies and resource management to secure jobs. One of its four tenets is education and talent supply. It calls for a demand-driven approach, setting high standards, awarding quality credentials, and aligning the workforce and education systems to meet the needs of the business community. 

HOLBROOK: Corning is committed to education. The company believes it and family are the most important building blocks for success. Corning has five factories in North Carolina. They hire locally, and they need new hires equipped with science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — skills, which help them understand our technical procedures and operate our complex machinery. They also need to collaborate, communicate and innovate. Corning has been in Wilmington for 50 years, and it wants to be there for 50 more. We’ve hired more than 70 people in the last few months. They are recent graduates from local high schools. Local skilled talent is a benefit, because we can bring them in quickly and they can get up to speed quickly.

DAVIS: Prior to joining MCNC, I worked as N.C. Department of Commerce’s chief operating officer and executive director of business, industry and trade. Commerce assisted many small businesses that needed flexible and adaptable workers with critical-thinking skills. We see the same thing at MCNC. The technological changes in our industry demand a workforce with new skills.

BRECKENRIDGE: Last year, [Washington, D.C.-based] Georgetown University studied the national economic recovery and how each state can sustain it. Researchers said that 67% of North Carolina’s workforce will need postsecondary education by 2025. That’s a strong number. Currently, 54% of our workers have those skills. Postsecondary is more than four-year and master’s degrees. It’s hard and soft skills. We’re taking a holistic approach. We need to transform education, focusing it to meet business needs in terms of quality and quantity of workers. If we invite teachers and students into businesses, they will see what happens there. That’s different than trying to teach it in the classroom.

HONEYCUTT: The state Constitution tasks N.C. State Board of Education and N.C. Department of Public Instruction with providing a sound basic education to all children. The superintendent, staff and board members are always seeking improvements to that education, so students have the skills that make them attractive and adaptable in our dynamic economy. It’s critical that we continue to ratchet up instruction and set high standards for students. We want them to understand what work is like. Postsecondary education is expensive career development, so it’s important that it’s used wisely. I wanted to be a nurse until I was in the hospital during ninth grade and I saw the job firsthand. It’s not all white caps. We have worked in career and technical education for many years, exposing middle-school students to a variety of careers and then building the needed skills during their high-school years. We’ve been working with the National Governors Academy and Council of Chief State School Officers Career Readiness Initiative to implement a statewide career pathways plan. It provides early awareness, develops skills and creates opportunities with employers such as field trips, apprenticeships and work-based learning. We feel it has the potential to be a real game changer for our state, businesses and our workforce.

How can businesses participate in education?

FOUST-PLATT: We inspire students to look for careers when we show students and teachers what work looks like. Middle school is a great place to start that. There are many different programs. Districts are developing leadership academies. Alamance-Burlington Teacher Leadership Academy recently graduated its first cohort. The school system’s central office staff took us to 12 businesses, an oppor-tunity provided by the local chamber
of commerce.

HOLBROOK: We’re working for tomorrow’s employees. The Wilmington plant has celebrated its take your children to work day for many years. It gives kids those aha moments, when they discover what excites them. Almost 80 students visited our plant this year. They participated in four activities: electronics and acoustics; computer programming; physics and aeronautics; and material conversion and manufacturing. One of the activities was building a hovercraft. We told students to engage in the activities and note what they liked and didn’t like. We incorporated hard and soft skills, including an attempt at teaching collaboration. That required students to take notes on what they did in an activity. The first group passed their notes to the next group, who added their notes from the same activity and passed them all along to the third group. The last group started the activity at a stronger place because earlier groups had shared their knowledge.

EBERT: [Cambridge, Mass.-based] Biogen Inc. included a community lab at its Research Triangle Park site. There, high-school and middle-school students spend time with scientists. There are dozens of examples where companies are busy doing similar things because they understand that’s how you energize the next generation.

BRECKENRIDGE: Biogen and Corning are large companies, but small companies have opportunities, too. N.C. Business Committee for Education began Students@Work, which creates job-shadowing and job-mentoring opportunities for students, about five years ago to curb the dropout rate. But it has morphed into a career pathway: They can’t be it if they can’t see it. Today, it takes 20,000 to 30,000 middle-school students to businesses each year. The Asheville Students@Work project, for example, takes students to more than 50 businesses. Some are large, such as [Asheville-based] The Biltmore Co. and [Asheville-based] Mission Health, but even small ones offer lessons. Students walk into a potter’s shop, for example, and see how proportions are used to mix clay. We need to scale this to reach more of the state’s 1.5 million middle-school students. Businesses can help do that.

What can businesses teach students and educators?

FOUST-PLATT: Sometimes we don’t give students the opportunity to learn adaptation. They see it firsthand if they’re involved with Students@Work, or a teacher in Teachers@Work, which immerses teachers in a workplace, exposing them to needed skills that can be incorporated into classroom lessons. That helps create the next great leaders, technicians, teachers and other professionals. About 10 years ago, education focused on preparing students for jobs that hadn’t yet been created. We are in that moment, and in 10 more years, it’s going to be even more important. That education-business partnership is vital to accomplishing that.

EBERT: In schools, just like businesses, leadership matters. [Winston-Salem-based] BB&T Corp., for example, has figured out how to train successful top executives. Its Leadership Institute has expanded, offering development programs for principals, superintendents and other education leaders. Think what would happen if every school had a transformational, well-trained leader driving the big changes that we need. That’s one of many investments businesses make off the balance sheet that are for the common good of the state. They want to see North Carolina residents grow and be successful. We’re lucky to be in a state where businesses contribute dollars and time to make an impact.

HONEYCUTT: In career and technical education, each program has an associated student organization, such as Future Business Leaders of America, that develops the corresponding hard and soft skills. The folks at BB&T have worked with our state officers in each career and technical student organization the past several years. It’s about 50 kids, and they help with programs around leadership skills for them, too.

What do businesses want teachers to teach?

EBERT: The state’s No. 1 workforce challenge is bridging the skills gap. Companies can’t find enough of the skilled employees that they need. The more business leaders and teachers interact the better. The workforce doesn’t only need university students. It needs skilled workers for the production floor, too. [Washington, D.C.-based] National Association of Manufacturers ranked North Carolina’s
$98 billion of manufacturing output fifth in the nation in 2013. That makes the certificate and associate-degree programs at community colleges important, too. Many companies statewide are desperate for welders, mechanics and machinists. They are good-paying jobs that students shy from because at some point they came to believe that those weren’t good jobs. We launched a Certified Work Ready Community initiative about a year ago. We brought together a half a dozen state agencies, and the chamber is the certifying body. Community leaders — the superintendent, the community-college president, business leaders, the local chamber and the local Workforce Investment Board — have to prove that they’re collaborating. We’ve certified about a dozen so far, and the goal is to certify every one in the state. It’s that next level up in terms of showing that the community is seriously collaborating and, in the end, giving businesses the skilled employees and tools they need to be successful.

HOLBROOK: Technical employees are half of the Wilmington factory’s salaried workforce. We have a harder time finding them than workers with an engineering degree from a university. Teachers can help
us train for those technical skills, including identifying problems and how to find the information needed to solve them.

How can businesses work with educators?

BRECKENRIDGE: North Carolina has about 100,000 teachers. Teachers@Work doesn’t reach enough of them. We designed a two-year pilot program for 25 teachers from 11 counties in eastern North Carolina this year. [Rocky Mount-based] Golden LEAF Foundation awarded $163,117 to help fund it. Their experiences will be extended by two days thanks
to a partnership with the community-college system. One day will be spent in Lean Six Sigma White Belt training and the second in OSHA Outreach training. Each will receive a certificate from both before they spend a week with their assigned partner business. The additional days give them a chance to explore more business concepts, such as developing an understanding of what project management means. We’re going to combine Students@Work and Teachers@Work during the second year. Teachers will bring their students into the business to see what they experienced and explain what it’s like to be in the workplace. It’s real time, real-life work experience.

FOUST-PLATT: I worked with [Bloomington, Ill.-based] State Farm Insurance for two weeks through the Teachers@Work program two years ago. I participated in their public-relations efforts. I enjoyed seeing what they did in the community daily. There were many layers to it. They sat down with me at the end with the company’s regional representative, who also wanted to know how we could partner in other ways. That’s huge. It built such a strong impression for me because they are strong people. That’s what we need. You want to put our students in that type of atmosphere. Teachers need to see that there are awesome careers and settings down the road for their students.

DAVIS: It’s rare that teachers have the time to step out of their everyday work and be able to think in a broader way. The conversation changes when businesses and teachers share a personal connection. There’s better understanding of what they are teaching and what needs to be taught. This is the second year that we’ve been involved in Teachers@Work. Our most recent teacher teaches business and information technology in Orange County. She was fascinated by our enterprise-resource-planning system, 24/7 operations center and daily tasks, including how we order spools of cable. It was all new to her. Now she asks what we’re doing. Her questions might pertain to how we use cloud computing, for example, so she can include it in her lessons. North Carolina has come together like no other state, creating a public-private partnership to connect education and businesses.

HOLBROOK: We had our first teacher last year. He interacted with more than 100 employees. It’s very exuberating for all involved. It became a catalyst, involving more people in our STEM program, where we have employees volunteer their knowledge and expertise in classrooms. We’re hosting a teacher again this year. Not every community has the resources of Charlotte, Raleigh or Durham. How do you funnel information to students in rural regions? Technology is one way. Students and teachers are using video conferencing, such as Skype, to do virtual job shadows and field trips. Others use technology to involve scientists or engineers in class projects. It’s not the same as being there, but if you can’t put students on a bus and drive 200 miles, it’s a great alternative that reinforces hard and soft skills.

EBERT: What you call the Common Core, we call “hire” standards. The business community probably invested more in North Carolina than any state to make sure these standards didn’t become politicized and were implemented. While other states weren’t sure if they wanted to have high standards, we made it clear to Raleigh that we do. In fact, we’re raising them. We’re getting ready for the next round of science and math standards. That’s a big investment in our young people’s future. 

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