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N.C. leaders discuss the future of workforce at UNC business school panel

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  • In August, CNBC named North Carolina as the Top State for Business for the second year in a row. Panelists talked state policies, emerging technology, skill gaps, and more.
  • State leaders across various sectors recently discussed the future of a sustainable workforce pipeline during a panel at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, focusing on state policies, emerging technology, skill gaps, and more.
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State leaders across various sectors discussed the future of a sustainable workforce pipeline on Aug. 23 at a panel hosted by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

The panel, “Seeking a New Labor Market Equilibrium: A Leadership Perspective,” was moderated by Kenan Institute Distinguished Fellow Thomas Stith, who was the 10th president of the N.C. Community College System (NCCCS). Panelists included current NCCCS President Dr. Jeff Cox, state Sen. Amy Galey, R-Alamance, IBM thought leader Jennifer Paylor, and NC Chamber CEO and President Gary Salamido.

“We have to have a strategy to have a sustainable, educated, and committed workforce,” Stith said. “The changing economy has created a need for greater alignment between our higher education system — specifically our community colleges — our businesses, and our state policy leaders.”

Stith emphasized the role of community colleges in building a stronger workforce, citing national data.

About 41% of undergraduate students in the U.S. are enrolled at a community college, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. At the same time, that data shows entry-level jobs require increasingly complex skills.

Among community college leaders, nearly all (98%) believe that partnerships between community colleges and businesses are “very important” to developing stronger workforce pipelines, according to a 2022 report from Harvard Business School. That number is 59% among business leaders.

“I would argue that if North Carolina did that same survey, that would be higher,” Cox said. “But unless it’s 100% of employers understanding the value of the partnership, then we’re not really fully realizing our potential.”

There are 58 community colleges in North Carolina, meaning nearly every state resident is just a 30-minute drive from a community college.

That kind of proximity matters, Cox said.

In July, CNBC named North Carolina as the Top State for Business for the second year in a row. Gov. Roy Cooper noted the importance of community colleges in maintaining such a status on a tour at Central Piedmont Community College.

“North Carolina is the best state for business for the second year in a row thanks to our well-trained, diverse, and dedicated workforce,” Cooper said. “Our community colleges are our not-so-secret weapon when it comes to building a talented workforce, and it’s critical that we invest in our public schools, quality child care, our community colleges and the health of North Carolina working families in order to continue this amazing success.”

On Wednesday, the panelists discussed such issues, with a focus on state policies, emerging technology, skills gaps, investment in faculty and staff, and more.

“I firmly believe what we see here in North Carolina is not only a model for our state but is a model nationally. That’s why North Carolina was number one in business,” Stith said. “We’ve figured it out — we figured out the collaboration between business, higher education, and our public officials. But let’s see what they have to say.”

You can find an excerpt of the discussion below.

Kenan Institute Distinguished Fellow Thomas Stith at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise’s panel on the state’s workforce on Aug. 23. Hannah McClellan/EducationNC

Skills gaps

A skills gap refers to a mismatch between the skills employees have and the skills employers need.

Addressing such gaps must involve an emphasis on professional development, Paylor said.

“Skills are evolving and changing at lightning speed. There are skills that will never go away — durable skills and durable trades. But there are skills that are evolving, or they’re being used in different ways. … The skills shortage sometimes requires a mindset shift in all of our processes, our infrastructure, the way we recruit talent, the way we attract, retain talent, and more importantly, how do you continue to upskill talent every day? Because whatever job, whatever skill you have today is going to change. In a year, in three years, it’s going to look completely different.”

Jennifer Paylor, industry talent innovation thought leader from IBM, Capgemini, and MG100

The skills gap is real, Paylor said, but sometimes institutions and organizations inadvertently create such gaps. Paylor gave the example of an employer who posts a job description for a job that looks very different once a person is actually in that role.

Cox added that sometimes employers exclude people who possess the skills they need by listing advanced education requirements.

“The more we can dig into what is the actual skill that the company needs, we can create short-term workforce credentials that match up very nicely with the specific skills. … The closer that’s a one-to-one relationship between here’s a job, here’s a student, here’s the community college that’s the bridge between that student and that job, that makes the operation seamless.”

Dr. Jeff Cox, president of the N.C. Community College System

The business community has thought a lot about such issues in recent years, Salamido said, due to the pandemic and the “great reassessment.”

“We had two and a half years of people reassessing what the next phase of their lives would be. So I think companies learned a lot, and we became better communicators. And I think our education community learned a lot and became better communicators, and we both became better listeners. So I’m optimistic as to how the communication is going right now, and I think as we get better at immediate skills, the ability to be a lifelong learner is where the business community is looking for and identifying its talent.”

Gary Salamido, president and CEO of NC Chamber
N.C. Community College President Dr. Jeff Cox at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise’s panel on the state’s workforce on Aug. 23. Hannah McClellan/EducationNC

State policies

Stith next asked panelists about state policies they thought could be changed or developed to enhance the workforce.

Cox said he would like to see further investment in ApprenticeshipNC, an “employer-driven training model that combines paid work-based learning with related classroom instruction.” The program is now housed within the NCCCS.

Galey spoke about the importance of kindergarten readiness, early literacy, and reading and math skills.

“We don’t think of early childhood education as being workforce development, but it is. If the child is not ready for kindergarten, statistics show that they are much, much less likely to graduate from high school. Another place where we can measure that skills gap is in third grade, in reading and math scores, and again in eighth grade reading and math scores.”

Sen. Amy Galey, R-Alamance

Galey is co-chair of the N.C. Senate Appropriations on Education/Higher Education Committee and the Education/Higher Education Committee.

The state’s efforts to implement the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021, the reading law that grounds instruction in the science of reading, include funding from the General Assembly for educators to be trained in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS).

But neither the House nor the Senate budget proposals included new state funding to avoid a fiscal cliff for early child care providers, EdNC previously reported, as federal relief funds dry up at the end of this calendar year.

Salamido said he’d like to see the state make it easier for justice-involved individuals to reenter the workforce, along with active military, veterans, and their spouses.

“The military presence in North Carolina is an incredible number of really special folks that are coming here to serve their country. Over 1,000 of them are being discharged per month, and they’re not staying. Some people want to go home and everything, but it should be easier to say, ‘Were you aware of these opportunities? And by the way, here’s the pathway, through whatever community you want to live in, to get the skills and the training that you need.'”

Gary Salamido, president and CEO of NC Chamber

Emerging technology

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) offer both opportunities and questions for state business and education leaders.

Several panelists offered their thoughts on adapting to such technology.

“One of the real challenges that we face is having to simultaneously prepare a workforce for the jobs that exist right now. And thinking around the curve, to what’s coming next year, in 10 years, 20 years — we develop a curriculum and train folks for jobs that don’t even exist yet.”

Dr. Jeff Cox, president of the NCCCS

“One of the problems with relying on government to do things is that the government is very slow and very risk-adverse because you’re using other people’s money, the taxpayers’ money. In investing that, you want to go where you have a high degree of certainty that you’re going to get the results you anticipate. … It’s really an area for private investment. Private investors can be much more nimble, much quicker than waiting for the government.”

Sen. Amy Galey

As technologies change, Paylor said continued upskilling is important.

“Private organizations are partnering with the government, there’s more collaboration, which is actually decreasing that product lifecycle. That’s one of the reasons why we need people to keep up with the skills because what you learn today, you can apply it in another area.”

Jennifer Paylor, industry talent innovation thought leader
Panelists at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise’s panel on the state’s workforce on Aug. 23. Hannah McClellan/EducationNC

Hiring and retaining employees

The state must also invest in the workforce behind the workforce, panelists said.

This includes early childhood educators, who are typically paid low wages. It also includes the faculty and staff who teach and train community colleges in high-demand fields like nursing, IT, and more.

“We can’t put out the workforce that we need to put out if we don’t have the instructors to lead the instruction,” Cox said.

This long session, the NCCCS legislative request for an additional $232 million over the biennium included $86.8 million in funding for a 7% salary increase for faculty and staff.

North Carolina ranks 41st in the nation for community college faculty pay, according to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). In comparison, the state ranks 24th in faculty pay at four-year institutions.

At the panel, Cox said increasing faculty and staff pay is first on the system’s budget priority list.

“When it comes down to workforce, if we’re the heart of the workforce, our instructors are at the heart of training that workforce,” Cox said. “If we can’t compete and hire those instructors, then we can’t prepare the next generation’s workforce.”

Hannah Vinueza McClellan

Hannah McClellan is EducationNC’s senior reporter and covers education news and policy, and faith.