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Perspective | Community college ad campaign seeks to boost NC workforce

More North Carolinians need education beyond high school to prepare for the jobs of today and tomorrow. Recently, leaders in our state agreed that we must have a plan to make North Carolina more competitive in the future. Our new statewide educational attainment goal is to have 2 million people with a high-quality college degree or workforce credential by 2030.

It’s a reach, but a necessary one. All but a handful of states have adopted similar goals. Half of the state’s employers say they need more workers with better skills to be able to succeed in an economy being transformed by technology and automation. By next year, more than two-thirds of the jobs in North Carolina will require a degree or training certificate beyond high school — today only half of our population has reached that level.

In a state with proud auto racing roots, let’s put it this way: it’s time to put the pedal to the metal.

We all need to pitch in to make this goal a reality. It will take quality early childhood education and our K-12 system to make sure our children are ready to learn beyond the age of 18. It will take our public and private universities and community colleges working together to bring in more students, give them the best education, and help them graduate.

Our community college system has the scale and business partnerships to be a critical mover in this race. We have been, and will increasingly be, the ladder to the middle class for so many. Our 58 colleges are within a half-hour’s drive for most residents. We are nimble and ready to provide our students with short-term programs leading straight to a job, or a two-year associate degree that can lead, affordably, halfway to a university diploma.

We want students to know the community college system is ready to roll on this important goal for our state. That’s why we’ve undertaken our first statewide advertising campaign, with billboards, digital and print ads and radio and TV commercials. Funded through generous support from our foundation and the John M Belk Endowment, the campaign will fully launch this month. The message is straightforward: choose a higher education focused on getting you hired – “Your Hire Education.”

The community college system has about 700,000 students. Traditionally our enrollment has climbed in economic hard times and fallen when the job market is robust. But even though unemployment in North Carolina stands at a low 4 percent, we know the picture won’t always be this rosy. Progress is uneven around the state, with prosperity in our urban areas, and many rural areas left behind. We know too many people are in dead-end jobs or don’t earn enough to make ends meet. Some people have dropped out of school and don’t know how to restart their education.

Community colleges offer people flexible scheduling, with access to courses when it’s convenient for them. A quarter of our students are online, getting their classes whenever they want. We provide value and a more affordable alternative, where students can find an array of 275 certificate and degree programs to meet their career goals, from nursing to high-tech manufacturing to culinary arts. Our colleges offer a welcoming environment, personal attention and services that connect students to child care, financial aid and whatever is needed to get them to the finish line. And yes, we have cultural events, sports, student clubs and other activities outside the classroom.

Despite a long tradition of excellence in higher education, North Carolina is in the middle of the pack among the states when it comes to educational attainment. Right now, we have 1.3 million adults who have a college degree or a workforce credential. That’s not enough to fill the types of jobs we have today, much less those that will be created tomorrow.

Let’s get to 2 million.

Editor’s note: This perspective was first published by the News & Observer. It’s been published with the author’s permission.

Peter Hans

Peter Hans became the ninth president of the North Carolina Community College System on May 1, 2018, bringing decades of leadership experience in higher education policy and governance to the position. Hans has been a leader on North Carolina’s two governing boards for higher education. He served six years on the State Board of Community Colleges and 12 on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.