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Perspective | The business case for early childhood education in North Carolina

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As a local business leader and native North Carolinian, I am constantly energized and excited by the tremendous growth of our state and its dynamic business landscape. In my lifetime alone, the population of the state has grown by approximately 5 million, thanks in large part to a favorable environment for commerce and a workforce capable of creating and delivering on innovation and business growth.

Few weeks go by without an announcement heralding a North Carolina-based company’s expansion or an out-of-state venture’s investment in our region. And as a banker whose team helps facilitate this growth, I can say with confidence that the opportunities to grow our local economy are abundant.

However, when we look at the state’s educational attainment goal — for 2 million North Carolinians to hold a high-quality credential or postsecondary degree by 2030 — and the 400,000-worker shortage North Carolina was projected to face by 2030 when that goal was set four years ago, it is becoming increasingly clear that the state’s talent pipeline is not in lockstep with the business growth trajectory. In fact, myFutureNC recently reported that N.C. was 31,000 workers below where it needed to be (as of 2021) to reach the 2 million-by-2030 goal. 

The fact that our state is not poised to deliver a workforce with the skills necessary to sustain its growth by 2030, in the relative short term, makes cultivating a talent pipeline for long-term economic success — and investing in early childhood education — all the more urgent.

In my role as PNC regional president for Eastern Carolinas, I lead an organization that has made significant investments in early childhood education. I’m often asked why our company has placed such a pronounced emphasis on preparing young children for success in kindergarten. At the most basic level, it’s because investing in high-quality early childhood education generates benefits that help our communities grow and prosper. We also understand what many EdNC readers know to be true – that the first five years are critical to a child’s development, with 90% of a child’s brain developing by age 5.

Additionally, we know that gaps in knowledge and ability between children with little-to-no access to necessary resources and their more advantaged peers surface long before kindergarten. Unfortunately, these gaps persist and create barriers to economic mobility throughout a person’s lifetime, ultimately impacting the talent pipeline and local economy. These gaps are difficult and costly to narrow. The reality is that it is more effective and efficient to create opportunities for all children to succeed than trying to close these gaps later in life. That’s why PNC supports a proactive approach to cognitive and social-skills development through our investments in high-quality early childhood education programs.
All of these factors led to the development, nearly 20 years ago, of PNC Grow Up Great, a nationwide $500 million, multi-year, bilingual initiative. PNC Grow Up Great provides a platform for our organization to champion high-quality early childhood education by providing tools and resources to help develop curious young minds — particularly those in underserved communities. 

This initiative is foundational to our organization’s identity and is a source of pride and engagement for employees, who receive up to 40 hours of paid time off for volunteerism annually. Since establishing a presence in North Carolina more than a decade ago, PNC has activated thousands of hours in volunteer efforts and distributed millions of dollars in grant funding to help advance early childhood education locally.

PNC’s leadership in the early childhood education space also has provided a vehicle for advocacy and collaboration with similar-minded business leaders and organizations. For example, Weston Andress, PNC regional president for Western Carolinas, and I are part of a group of North Carolina business leaders working to increase third-grade reading proficiency, one of the most critical milestones in a child’s educational journey. This group, led by Dr. Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS, has worked together since 2017. Our work has been guided by six state-level policy recommendations, as first outlined in a national report from the Business Roundtable titled Why Reading Matters and What to Do About It, which the group released in Raleigh six years ago.

This group has since grown to include roughly 25 senior business executives from a diverse cross-section of industries and disciplines across North Carolina, including members of the North Carolina Chamber, the North Carolina Bankers Association, and numerous local chambers of commerce. We have seen much progress since 2017 and we are committed to continuing this important work. To this end, we plan to release a revised Why Reading Matters report from the Business Roundtable on April 11. At that time, the group will outline (based upon the Business Roundtable recommendations) our requested scope of support for early literacy policies, for consideration during this legislative session and in the next biennial budget currently in progress.

Supporting the future of early childhood education is a complex endeavor, and it will take the efforts of multiple stakeholders to deliver on the challenges and opportunities facing our future workforce. It is my sincere hope that my perspective provides some insight into the business case for early childhood education and conveys the business community’s commitment to help advance early childhood education in North Carolina.

Jim Hansen

Jim Hansen is PNC regional president for Eastern Carolinas and Southeast territory executive.