Here’s a good news-bad news story that needs a happy ending.
The good news is that as of January our state’s unemployment rate was 3.6 percent. When you consider it was 4.5 percent last February, that’s cause for celebration. It is lower than the national average and more North Carolinians are working now than ever. Further, wages are growing, albeit slowly.
Tempting as it is to stop with this sunny picture, we must present the findings of a just-released report from the John Belk Endowment and Carolina Demography that point to clouds on our horizon. Titled, “North Carolina’s Leaky Educational Pipeline & Pathways to 60 percent Postsecondary Attainment,” this compelling study found that 67 percent of all jobs in our state next year will require some education and training beyond high school. Currently only 47 percent of our 5.3 million working adults 25-64 years of age have a postsecondary degree or nondegree credential. Just to reach the 60 percent goal means an additional 672,000 must obtain more education for today’s jobs, never mind tomorrow’s.
The study followed ninth-graders through our public education institutions for 10 years. Just 16 percent of the most recent ninth-graders graduated from high school on-time and made an on-time transition to a North Carolina community college or UNC system university and then received a degree or credential from that institution. Clearly, our postsecondary education pipeline is leaking and our failure to stop the leaks results in our falling further behind in filling employer needs.
What are the needs? Using data from The Department of Labor and Bureau of Labor Statistics, career specialist Zippia lists the 10 fastest growing jobs in North Carolina. They are statistician, credit counselor, nurse practitioner, operations analyst, occupational therapy assistant, physician assistant, home health aide, diagnostic medical sonographer and physical therapy aide. All require education beyond a high school diploma.
Complicating the issue is a changing workforce. Our working age population is shrinking, and those baby boomers who find they must remain in the workforce need more skills and training if they are to earn living wages. For the first time, more than one-half of the state’s public school students are non-white, with 6 percent identifying as black, 17 percent as Hispanic, 4 percent as multiracial, 3 percent as Asian and 1 percent as American Indian. A more diverse younger population presents new education challenges.
So, what is it going to require for our state to have a happy ending? We clearly need to reform education. It’s time to put aside turf battles, finger pointing and arguments over inconsequential details and begin focusing on outcomes. We need visionary minds from all disciplines, including our K-12, community colleges and public universities to work with the private sector in designing education options to optimize educational opportunities.
There must be appealing, affordable and accessible options for those wanting university undergraduate and graduate level degrees, as well as for those who want non-degree credentialing and skills training. We require 21st century solutions, and we need them quickly.
We can do it if our focus is to ensure the health, happiness and optimum economy for our state and its people. We dare not shirk this responsibility, so let us become plumbers plugging those leaks in our education pipeline.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.