News: CJ Exclusives

NC Lagging in Workforce Development

Half of recent high-school graduates enrolling in community colleges need remediation

A lack of education and vocational training — specifically in technology, science, and biotechnology fields — has left the North Carolina public school system lagging in the competitive race of building a competent workforce to attract new corporations and businesses to the state.

Martin Lancaster, president of the North Carolina Community College system, said the NCCC is doing its best to bridge the gap across the state through tech prep and other programs, but he thinks the state is on a collision course with disaster in preparing the workforce for the future.

Problem begins in high school

“Forty-eight percent of recent high school graduates that enroll in community college need remediation in either reading, writing, or mathematics,” he said. “It’s a very bad sign that puts the North Carolina economic future at risk. If North Carolina is going to be an economy based on knowledge, then we need to do better at our high school and community college level.”

Part of the problem, Lancaster said, is that students aren’t challenged on the high-school level. Most, he said, end up getting a general high school diploma that only can get them a job flipping hamburgers. “Almost any job of the future is going to require math and science skills if you’re going to be successful beyond menial tasks.”

This news doesn’t bode well for many of the corporations looking for sites to build new facilities.

A report by The Workforce Stability Institute in Greensboro said employers are increasingly concerned about maintaining a stable workforce. “They need competent, dedicated, and effective workers to serve their customers to fulfill their missions… It is frustratingly difficult to find, recruit, and hire the caliber of employees that companies desire today.”

Incentives no, education yes

Carly Fiorina, former North Carolina resident and current CEO of Hewlett Packard, said most industries are technology-based and are looking for a well-educated workforce.

”Keep your tax incentives and your highway interchanges,” she once told the National Governors Association. “We will go where the highly skilled people are… Education is at the heart of everything, I believe. You must, we must together continue to reinvent and re-engineer our education systems to achieve higher standards of competence and skill.”

The Rural Program, founded by The Duke Endowment to Help Strengthen Rural Communities, found the largely agricultural state of North Carolina does not meet the standards or educational levels required by most industries to compete in the current economy. “In many rural counties only slightly more than half of the population have a high school degree,” the report said. “Getting a good job in today’s economic environment now requires postsecondary education and training, along with systems of lifelong learning.”

A recent article by Jason Spencer of The Free Press of Kinston cited how education and training became the focus when Boeing, a leading manufacturer on airplanes, was trying to decide on a location to build a new plant.

The article said the company was told in a state proposal that a pool of 96,000 workers were available within a 200-mile radius of the Global TransPark, located in rural eastern North Carolina. However, Boeing officials didn’t necessarily want employees skilled in traditional crafts such as manufacturing and painting. The company was also apprehensive about finding enough qualified workers for their plant.

Jones County economic developer Roy Fogle said he wasn’t surprised at the manufacturer’s decision. “It’s hard to find a trained labor force for a big company like Boeing in rural areas.”

Fogle said there are ways to improve a community’s chance to land a large anchor business. One is lowering the dropout rate of more than 100 students per day in North Carolina by providing vocational and technology training before they reach college age. “It’s got to start with high school. Students ought to have a choice. I think America is falling down on training for those boys and girls who need it. We’re failing those kids, giving them a productive life and productive living.”

There is some good news though.

Laura Williams-Tracy, reporter for North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, said Johnston County commissioners offered $3 million to build a workforce development center to train frontline workers in the field of biotechnology. “We believe the best incentive we have to offer business is a prepared workforce that needs less training,” said Linwood Parker, chairman of the Johnston County Economic Development Advisory Board.

New technology, more training

Williams-Tracy said the facility, which is being built in cooperation with Johnston County Community College and Johnston County Public Schools, will offer apprenticeship programs to school-age students.

The article also quoted Mike Desherbinin, director of Johnston County Economic Development. “It behooves us to be in a position to provide the best available workforce,” he said.

“New technology is really driving the need for retraining. Standard operating procedures 10 years ago no longer exist. It’s a constant lifelong process for the workforce to be adaptable as possible. Retraining never goes away.”

Lancaster said many counties are beginning to offer a “middle college” experience for at-risk high school students. “This program is for students who are thinking about dropping out, but have the ability to succeed in a different setting.”

Lenoir County, home of the GTP, is also seeing the need for more expanded training and programs, said School Board Chairman Connie Mintz.

Early training needed: Survey

She said the school district recently sent out a survey to more than 1,000 teachers and support staff to find out what is needed to upgrade the school system. “It was amazing to me how important it is to most of those surveyed to get vocational training back into the high school level,” Mintz said. “The days of the farm are over, and we’re seeing how important it is to start training at an early age.”

One of the ways to achieve this goal, she said, is to work with experts outside the public school system. “Some of these jobs in today’s world are very, very complicated,” Mintz said. ”I think we need to work in conjunction with the community college and get more of the high school students to attend. They are going to need specific training for specific jobs.”

Larry Gracie, director of Planning, Accountability and Continuous Enhancement in the North Carolina Community College system, said allowing high school students to begin training in a specialized field can only be good for the region. “If we start the children younger, they can be out by the age of 18 and be a viable part of the workforce,” he said.

Welsh is a contributing writer to Carolina Journal.