Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Round table: Business and education, diverse paths to good careers

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Business North Carolina gathered a panel of education and business leaders at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at N.C. State University to talk about how business impacts students’ education and career paths. From offering hands-on experiences to exposing students and parents to lesser known jobs to creative ways to fill workforce shortages, ideas, challenges and success stories swirled around the table.



Caterpillar and Duke Energy sponsored the discussion. It was moderated by Caroline Sullivan, executive director for the North Carolina Business Committee for Education.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Dave, Caterpillar has been a leader in high quality apprenticeship programs for students as early as in high school. Can you talk about why it’s beneficial to you?

EMONSON: We employ over 2,000 people in manufacturing roles in Wake, Lee and Johnston counties. With community colleges and the local high schools, we have developed pre-apprentice programs where students are exposed to the jobs we offer, that can then lead to a full apprentice program. They go through the same training that we would offer full-time employees and they do this while completing their studies. It’s been really successful.

These programs have been running for over 10 years, and in Sanford, where welding is a really important part of the skill set we have been very successful.  Twenty-five percent of
our current welding workforce in Sanford went through these apprentice programs, and 20% of these ex-apprentices are at our highest level of our welding program and are very well compensated for this critical skill set.

It is very difficult to hire people into manufacturing, so the more we can promote it, the better. As for having young people within a workplace, I was an apprentice in the UK at age 16. You might have noticed that from how I speak, I’m not from North Carolina. I was an apprentice for four years, because in the old days, apprenticeship programs lasted a long time. I’ve been a big fan of getting young people exposed to manufacturing opportunities. We’ve got a relatively young workforce, so it’s easy for us to engage the younger workforce or apprentices. It’s not like they can’t learn the roles and be very successful, if they have the aptitude, they can be successful.

BALDWIN: A key thing we find at Malone, is that businesses realize early on how important it is to build a relationship with the school and the students. This is about the time of year that some organizations suddenly show up with a stack of business cards, and they’ll say: “I heard you have some HVAC technicians graduating, will you pass out my business cards?” And it’s too late because the students have already been building relationships with other business partners who connected with them one or two years before they graduated.    

Pat, how important IS IT for employers to get involved in schools to grow their workforce?

CRONIN: I think the conversation that we’ve had to this point really underscores the need for more employer engagement. And if I had to single out a reason for that it’s self-interest, right. The only thing that we’ve consistently heard over the last several years from employers is their inability to find the workers that they need. And I think it’s incumbent upon the employers to participate and help generate that pipeline. And so we got some great examples of how employers are doing that here in the room. But too many employers don’t do it for whatever reason. I think it’s important to understand that the demographic headwinds are significant. I don’t think even with a recession, this challenge of finding workers is going to go away. We’ve got an aging workforce, the baby boomers are retiring every year. And so Dave, I don’t know what the age profile of your workforce looks like, but I know from talking to others in manufacturing, it’s old. And so you have to worry about where replacements are coming from. We also have fewer kids coming through the pipeline. I saw a UNC study that suggested that the number of kids graduating from high school in North Carolina in 2029 to 2039 is  going to be flat or declining. So there’s going to be a limited pool going forward. And of course, there’s the added challenge, that demographically in terms of race, ethnicity, in terms of income, the profile of your average North Carolina K-12 student is shifting toward groups that traditionally have had lower levels of educational attainment. As the workplace gets more sophisticated, as you’ve got million-dollar machines that you need workers to run through computers, you need workers with more skills, not fewer. So that’s the challenge. We have been working with multi-sector groups to really get the word out that something needs to be done. The state has set its goal of 2 million North Carolinians with a high quality credential or post secondary degree by 2030 to meet our workforce needs.

Well, we’re behind where we need to be. Obviously, the pandemic did us no favors in that respect. But, you know, one of the messages we’re trying to get across is that if we’re going to meet these goals, everyone has a role to play. And it has to be locally owned and driven. And in that sense, I would single out two groups that need to be front and center: employers, and students and their families. It’s about meeting the needs of both of those groups.

EMONSON: For us, we have two real challenges in manufacturing: getting the word out and getting people exposed to opportunities. This means teachers like yourselves and parents who don’t work in a manufacturing environment, knowing that there’s a good career for people in manufacturing. If we can do that, it would go a long way. And then we’ve got to be there to give people the exposure and opportunity to experience what manufacturing is really about. It’s very complicated but also very rewarding. Everything that we sit in today would not have been created without manufacturing, without engineering. And the more we can get students to pursue STEM related subjects, the better we’re going to be. Also, we need to focus on the fact that too many females are leaving STEM related subjects way to early whilst at school, before they know what they’ve missed out on. So how can we change that?

Well, some of the ways you can change that is through things like work-based learning. I don’t have to nag Caterpillar about this, But for other employers out there, you have to tell your story. You have to tell our K-12 teachers and students that in addition to a good career path or income, the jobs are meaningful. We have a platform called the Workplace Learning Navigator that is free to all companies and available to every teacher in the state. The easiest thing you can do is get on the platform and tell your story. Can you talk about how employers are reaching folks who traditionally are not in advanced manufacturing?

EMONSON: Over the last year or so, we’ve had the opportunity to work with a neurodiverse group. The organization came to help us learn how we could change the way in which we train, how we adjust our operations, how we develop the work practices, so that they can benefit neurodiverse employees. We have changed our training program for the better. We got some great tips on how to make it more visual, how to speak differently, how to create the standard presentations in a way in which everyone can understand. And that has helped us with our training program for everyone. So we’ve made multiple changes to the way in which we onboard all employees, which will help us with neurodiversity. This is an untapped opportunity that we are really grateful we were able
to do something about in the last twelve months.

Most of our employers that we work with through our program for autistic professionals are more for folks that have four-year degrees. Caterpillar really is paving the way to be able to support individuals who either have a community college degree or don’t have a four-year degree and can still have a career like advanced manufacturing.

EMONSON: We’re really excited to see how that works out. It’s been a great positive experience for us as well.

CRONIN: If there’s a silver lining to the situation of not finding enough talent is that employers are finally paying attention to groups that have traditionally struggled to get into and stay in the workforce. So the neurodiverse community is a good example of that.

Julie, CTE is all about relevance to the curriculum and work-based learning. How do some students do better in CTE programs than they might do in traditional programs?

PACK: One of the things about career technical education is that it’s immersive. They don’t just learn about manufacturing, they actually do the activities in the classroom. Where students sometimes struggle is in taking a math, or science or English class where it’s theoretical, and these classes don’t seem practical to the real world. CTE does that. They’re learning the why, but they’re also learning the how. So we have students who persist in career technical education. Our data in Durham public schools, for example, shows an 85% graduation rate for the entire district. But when you look at students who are in those (CTE) concentrations, graduation rates were at 99%. I was appreciating what you were saying about really providing opportunity to underrepresented students, because that is one of the impetus and focuses of career education, because we pay attention to those subgroups, and students that we say are in special populations. These are students who typically don’t have the advantages that other students have. It’s encouraging to hear talk about changing your practices to engage more students. Other students who have challenges are students who speak primarily another language, students who have transportation issues or are experiencing economic issues. We’re trying to find ways to remove those barriers and get them into those work based learning experiences. We also need the businesses to help us remove those barriers.

BALDWIN: The statistics Julie gives are pretty common across the state. We’ve got students at Vernon Malone who may be on the verge of failing and we try to decide if this student should even go out and do an internship. Are they going to be able to handle that life experience?  A month into their internship, I’ll get a phone call and it’s as if this is a whole different student. The worksite is saying he’s doing a great job. We’ve got success story after success story of business partners that see the kids thrive, when they are in the real work experience and not sitting in a math class or a typical classroom. It’s so important sometimes to make sure that we give those kids those opportunities and remember that everybody thrives in different ways. CTE does that.

EMONSON: If you go through high school and you’re told that the only aspiration is a four-year degree, then you’re inherently disappointed if you don’t get to do it. But if we can engage people so that they realize there’s a career in manufacturing, if you come and work for companies like us and many others, your education doesn’t end when you start work, it’s just the start. We offer education assistance for community college, or you can get a two-year degree or a four-year degree.

PACK: Well, I think that that’s a great point, one that we struggle with in CTE because there’s a community perspective, that a four year degree is the ticket to get into the next level. And we’re not saying that it’s not. We want our students graduating with purpose. What are you going to accomplish? What are you doing in the next step? Because it may be the next step that you’re looking for is going straight to an employer and letting them pay for the college. Or it might be that you just need a certain certification and you can make a lot more than your doctor or your dentist.

EMONSON: I think that getting exposure to parents and students that the career opportunity is real is key. And then it also opens up lots more doors. It’s not the end, because you didn’t get a four-year degree, it can easily be the beginning.

BALDWIN: We fight the stereotypes sometimes. At Vernon Malone, one of our programs is facilities maintenance and electrical. We’re asking our eighth grade students to make those decisions with their moms and dads. We have to break that stereotype of what it means to be in facilities maintenance, technology or welding. And sometimes we do that by talking about the salaries, and then all of a sudden mom and dad see that Johnny’s gonna come out making more money as an HVAC technician than the occupation that they currently have in mind.

CRONIN: I would like to echo and expand on what you were just saying. We’re currently working with five community based organizations across the state four of whom are exclusively focused on helping kids get through high school and hopefully on to something after that. Certainly one of the challenges you’ve named is the parents who have it in their mind that their child is going on to a four-year college and maybe one specific four-year college. So trying to get them to consider, for instance, a community college is a challenge. It’s also important to understand there are parents out there who also don’t have any aspirations for their children after high school and are not encouraging their children to do any more education. So I think that’s part of the challenge as well is helping parents and other career influencers open the eyes of their kids to consider something after high school. Because increasingly, it’s really, really hard, if not impossible, to earn a family sustaining wage if you don’t go on after high school, and get some sort of credential or degree.

PACK: One of the things we’re working on is really making that connection for students in middle school. I know Dawson County does this by exposing different kinds of work. This is where we need a lot of partnerships with employers so that you can have side by side, the educational programs that you have in high school with the careers that align with that education. And then as a student is going into ninth grade, they’ve already done a lot of career activities and learned career inventories. Then they have an idea of what they’re really good at. We’re helping people connect the dots. They’re making those choices, not so much because mom wants me to go to early college, but because this is the work they want to do.

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