Tuesday, April 23, 2024

State’s workforce talent pipeline has too many leaks, officials say

There’s a lot of focus on improving and enlarging North Carolina’s workforce. A key is getting more folks industry-recognized credentials and college degrees. That is hard. Last week, we got an update on how hard.

The organization myFutureNC monitors our education progress. It has a goal of getting 2 million North Carolinians between 25 and 44 credentials or degrees – for instance, a welding certificate, cybersecurity training, an associate degree, a four-year diploma by 2030. We are around 1.55 million now, 31,000 behind schedule on where we need to be to hit the 2 million goal. That is not a large gap, but it would be better if we were ahead. And the pandemic landing in the middle of this initiative has made the job more difficult.

North Carolina is working toward a goal of getting more adults to earn degrees or certificates that will lead to better jobs.

Cecilia Holden, the CEO of myFutureNC, has managed over the past four years to put together an impressive political and corporate consensus behind the goal. It is an official state target. Dignitaries at the group’s gathering at the Merrimon-Wynne House in Raleigh included Gov. Roy Cooper, Senate leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, and Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders.

At the core of what myFutureNC has established — in partnership with the UNC School of Government’s ncIMPACT Initiative— is 15 Local Educational Attainment Collaboratives representing 42 of the state’s 100 counties. Attainment goals have been recommended for every county. Regional managers from myFutureNC are working with these collaboratives. In the last couple of weeks, I have run into the manager for my region twice, at two separate events.

The problem is our education pipeline leaks. Too many young folks don’t get through high school. An average of 9,500 drop out each year. Or after high school, they don’t go to one of our 58 community colleges and get a skill to get a good job. Or they get to college and drop out. One in 9 people between 16 and 24 are not in school and not working.

Only 28 out of 100 ninth-graders in North Carolina are getting a degree or credential within six years after high school graduation. “Twenty-eight out of 100 is not nearly enough in order to meet the 2 million jobs that are going to require higher levels of education by the year 2030,” said Holden, who was an IBM executive before serving in the N.C. Department of Commerce and Department of Public Instruction, among other state posts.

“We’re just simply losing too many students in this leaky pipeline. When you couple this with the declining college enrollments that we’re seeing, 13% in our community colleges, pre-pandemic numbers,” said Holden, “we simply don’t have enough students that are going to make it to and through to get to 2 million. One of the things I can share with you is we know that we’re facing a state of emergency around the talent pipeline.”

So this will require bringing older folks back to the classroom. There are nearly 1.2 million North Carolinians between 25 and 44 who lack a certificate or degree. That includes 243,000 without a high school diploma or GED; 591,000 who have a high school diploma or GED but went no further; and 329,000 who had some college but stopped short of a degree.

Holden noted that myFutureNC has been working with the John M. Belk Endowment, the North Carolina State Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, and the community colleges to try to enroll these adults. Some 15 community colleges have participated in NC Reconnect. The program brought 1,300 previously enrolled adult learners back in the Fall 2021 semester.

Another program, NC Workforce Credentials, is aimed at identifying which credentials lead to high-demand, high-growth jobs. Getting people in these credential programs – many of them requiring a year or less – is viewed as a way to get more people into certified skills programs that meet high-demand workforce needs and will pay well. They are aimed at folks who may balk at a two-year or four-year commitment. And once they have achieved a certification milestone, they may then see the benefits of more education.

But the work toward 2 million has to start earlier, said Holden. She said myFutureNC is endorsing the proposal by DPI and the State Board of Education for career plans for every middle and high school student.

“We strongly support an individualized career plan to be in place for all of these students, reviewed annually, updated as necessary, to assist our students in exploring educational and career opportunities and in making appropriate education decisions along their journey, for what’s next after high school.”

Another policy recommendation deals with how to help students pay for short-term, industry-valued credentials. Two-thirds of prospective adult students say cost is a significant barrier to enrollment. Federal Pell grants won’t pay for non-degree credential programs. “So providing more no-cost pathways to industry-valued credentials can provide immediate value for our employers, for an individual’s earning power and the tax base of our state’s economy.” These would be “RAISE Scholarships”— Reinforcement and Investment to Strengthen the Economy.

For students pursuing a degree program, one problem is that too many are not completing the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. North Carolina students are leaving more than $120 million in federal aid untapped annually. The FAFSA completion rate in North Carolina is around 60%. The goal set by myFutureNC is 80% by 2030. This would also help boost the post-secondary enrollment rate, now 40%, to 47% by 2030, which would enroll more than 70,000 additional 18-24-year-olds in our colleges.

A variety of challenges emerge when you drill down into the data that myFutureNC has collected. You can look at it at a statewide level, or at each of your 100 counties. All the data categories are levers to get to 2 million. Some are more important than others, but they are all levers.

For example, one goal is to have 75% of eligible children in NC Pre-K by 2030, because getting kids off to a good start is crucial to a lot of other educational outcomes. Right now, it’s at 51%. Chronic absenteeism is a problem for 26% of public school students; the goal is to get that down to 11% in 2030.  But that is connected to a lot of other problems.

Which was a theme of Gov. Cooper’s remarks.

“We’ve got to look at it holistically. We’ve got to look at it from cradle to career,” he said.  He said early-childhood education provides the “biggest bang for the buck.” And he said the folks who criticize public schools should visit them and understand the challenges that teachers face dealing with children from difficult situations, and the good they are doing.

He recalled tutoring students for more than 20 years, “having children who didn’t know where they were going to be that night, whether it was at a hotel, or with a grandparent, truly a homeless child . . . think about trying to educate a homeless child in school, and the burden on educators.”

But he cautioned that achieving educational attainment and workforce goals requires resources. “We’ve got to stop with the cutting taxes for the wealthy. We’ve got to stop it. The math doesn’t add up.”

But Republican legislative leaders disagree with the governor. “We must disabuse ourselves of the notion,” Berger said last month,  “that more money alone buys positive outcomes for our students. Success in education policy is about more than hitting some arbitrary funding goal.”

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