Building North Carolina’s future workforce begins with early childhood education
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Editor’s note: When Business North Carolina recently asked Jim Hansen, PNC regional president for Eastern Carolinas, and other influential business leaders to share their thoughts on the state’s business landscape for Business North Carolina’s 40th anniversary issue, he reflected on the state’s growth and hunger for excellence. In the article that follows this reflection below, Hansen and Weston Andress, PNC regional president for Western Carolinas, discuss why early childhood education is foundational to building the workforce N.C. needs to continue this hunger for excellence and remain competitive in the future.
ONGOING BUSINESS GROWTH SHEDS LIGHT ON EMPLOYMENT CHALLENGES
Few days go by, it seems, without a headline announcing the expansion of a N.C. business or a company’s entrance to the region. What is clear is that N.C. continues to attract opportunities for economic development. Also abundantly clear, says Andress, is that the state’s education system and economy are out of sync – and that N.C. is not poised to deliver a workforce with the skills and talent necessary to sustain this growth.
According to myFutureNC, a statewide nonprofit organization for which Andress serves as an advisory board commissioner, the short-term implications are significant; by 2030, North Carolina is projected to experience a 400,000-person educational attainment gap. “As our economy grows, the vast majority of new jobs require more than a high school diploma,” says David Bohm, director of development for myFutureNC. “However, fewer than one-half of North Carolinians ages 25-44 – and even fewer from economically disadvantaged backgrounds – hold a post-secondary degree or high-quality credential.”
Education nonprofit myFutureNC was formed to address this shortcoming, with a focus on developing a vision – from preschool through postsecondary and the workforce – for a stronger and more competitive state. Foundational to this work is the understanding that high-quality early learning and strong academic progress in early years helps prepare children for future success.
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: AN IMPERATIVE FOR WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT
It should come as no surprise that children who participate in high-quality early education programs are far more likely to experience greater educational achievements and strive toward higher vocational aspirations – a premise that has been backed by extensive research, says Hansen.
Also validated by research, says Andress, is the fact that the return on investments in high-quality early education and school readiness initiatives are significant and long-lasting, impacting the health of the economy for generations to come. “Pre-K education is not only essential for helping today’s children and tomorrow’s workforce achieve economic mobility, it’s also necessary for meeting the future demands of our state’s employers,” he says.
What this means in N.C., says Hansen, is that access to NC Pre-K must be improved. “If North Carolina is to remain competitive for business, expanding access to NC Pre-K is not an option; it’s an imperative,” says Hansen.
Access to NC Pre-K is one thing. Ensuring the state has enough early childhood educators to deliver high-quality instruction is another. In recent years, North Carolina has experienced a significant shortage of early childhood educators, a deficit compounded by labor and health implications of COVID-19.
Local business leaders have demonstrated a commitment to help create solutions. For example, in 2020, the PNC Foundation awarded Central Piedmont Community College two grants totaling $500,000 to support the college’s early education program and help train more Pre-K teachers.
“It will take the efforts of the larger business community to deliver on the challenges North Carolina is facing,” says Andress. “Inequality in early childhood education leads to inequality in ability, achievement, health and adult success. And prevention is more successful and less costly than remediation to close the achievement gap.”
Through PNC Grow Up Great®, a $500 million, multi-year, bilingual initiative to help prepare children from birth to age 5 for success in school and life, PNC has championed early childhood education causes throughout North Carolina since 2012. For more information, visit www.pncgrowupgreat.com.