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‘Connecting the dots that lead to educational attainment and gainful employment’

In 2019, local leaders in Henderson, Madison, Buncombe, and Transylvania counties formed the Land of Sky Educational Attainment and Workforce Collaborative to better align educational outcomes with future economic needs of the region. Spurred by myFutureNC’s attainment goal of two million 25- to 44-year olds with a high-quality credential or degree by 2030, Land of Sky leaders decided to spearhead an educational pilot project intended to be a model for the state.

When I met with leaders from Land of Sky in early February, the team had been diligently collecting data to develop an action plan that would make meaningful connections between educational attainment and workforce needs in the Land of Sky region. Or, as Dr. Joseph Fox, lead coordinator for the pilot project, says, “connecting the dots that lead to educational attainment and gainful employment.” 

By late February, Land of Sky had organized a meeting for March 25 that would bring individuals together from across the region to discuss the education/workforce ecosystem and best practices of educational institutions and workforce development. At this meeting, the Collaborative would also deliver key findings and present a work plan for the group’s next steps.

Then, March happened. Like many events in early 2020, the informative session slated for March 25 was canceled.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Land of Sky leaders have “continued to research issues related to educational attainment and gainful employment during these most challenging times,” Fox said. The group has remained flexible, and they’re adapting their goals and strategies as they deal with the new normal, including continuing to hold bimonthly Zoom meetings in an effort to move the project forward. 

After a brief reset, the Collaborative refocused its efforts on data collection pertaining to best practices from local stakeholders and compiled a preliminary report (embedded at the end of this article).

The May 2020 report provides background information pertaining to myFutureNC, the history of the pilot project, the Collaborative’s short-term goals, preliminary key findings, and next steps. While laying the groundwork, the Collaborative highlights the contribution needed by the Land of Sky region to meet North Carolina’s attainment goal of 2 million by 2030.

With 430,000 residents spanning Henderson, Madison, Buncombe, and Transylvania counties, leaders estimate that the Land of Sky region will “need to contribute about 82,000 individuals within the targeted group with a postsecondary credential or degree by 2030.” If the region continues with current attainment trends, it is on track to contribute 72,000 of the 82,000 needed. To mitigate the shortfall, the Collaborative outlines their process for:

“…constructing an attainment model that will examine educational initiatives, certificates, and degrees that create a seamless transition from educational institutions to gainful employment that can be utilized in all 100 North Carolina counties.”

Using the Collective Impact Model, the Collaborative identified and reached out to key community stakeholders, educators, employers, local governments, economic developers, chambers of commerce, workforce development boards, and community advocates.

Courtesy of Land of Sky Educational Attainment and Workforce Collaborative.

As the report states, these stakeholders shared their best practices around educational attainment and meaningful employment. From these conversations, the Collaborative created an Educational Attainment Collaborative Ecosystem  [shown below] and created short-term goals that focus on:

  • gainful employment through an equity lens
  • networking for stakeholders to enhance alignment
  • building on national and local best practices
  • conducting a regional Gap Analysis 
  • aligning workforce competencies for the present and future
  • identifying tools and resources for a seamless transition from educational attainment to gainful employment
  • examining talent management and talent acquisition
  • developing funding sources for a long-term strategic approach to funding the project
Courtesy of Land of Sky Educational Attainment and Workforce Collaborative.

The report also highlights the Collaborative’s regional asset map [shown below] that will be used to create a sustainable approach to aligning credentials and degrees to the needs of local employers.

In addition to the asset map, the Collaborative shares a list of best practices and strategies that received further research based on continued conversations between the Collaborative and key stakeholders across the region. Some of the topics include pre-K and early childhood development initiatives, an advising framework that begins in elementary school, and the revision of educational placement policies.

Courtesy of Land of Sky Educational Attainment and Workforce Collaborative.

The report also looks at the region’s employment trends. Specifically, the top two growing sectors are manufacturing and restaurant/lodging/hospitality.

Early findings from the Collaborative’s efforts suggest there is a skills gap between “current human talent in the workforce and needed competencies for future jobs,” and that employers are facing challenges to hiring talent. The report states:

“The picture that is emerging is that Western North Carolina needs to ‘grow’ its own human talent, while also exploring internal and external human talent processes.”

The Collaborative’s next steps include comparing local best practices to national best practices, performing a skills gap analysis of the region, creating marketing tools to better tell the story of the Collaborative, and developing a strategic plan. View the full report below.

Emily Thomas

Emily was born and raised in Western North Carolina. After graduating from Caldwell Community College, Emily went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in Organizational/Public Communication from Appalachian State University and a master’s degree in Communication from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Emily has over 10 years of higher education experience. Much of her career has been spent in enrollment, advising, and teaching within the communication discipline at two-year and four-year public and private institutions.