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A menacing hurricane in the blue Atlantic and a mass shooting in the heart of Texas overshadowed the traditional Labor Day reflection on working Americans. Still, as the hurricane passes and schools return to their fall rhythm, North Carolinians can think anew about the dignity of work and its interconnection with education.

While public education arose initially as an instrument for building a democratic society, modern North Carolina has found the economic imperative for educational advancement more persuasive. Education generates the intelligence and skills that drive the economy, and a growing economy supplies the financial fuel that sustains schools, colleges, and universities.

This economy-education dynamic finds expression in the statewide education initiative myFutureNC. On the premise that most new jobs now require education beyond high school, the project has the goal of increasing the number of adults, ages 25 to 44, with either a college degree or work-related credential from 1.3 million to 2 million by 2030. “One of the highest targets in the South,’’ says myFutureNC.

Along has come the Southern Regional Education Board, in a Fact Book released shortly before Labor Day, to warn that “states face serious challenges in meeting workforce needs’’ over the next decade. 

“Decades of poverty, under-education, and dependency on low-skilled jobs will come face to face with advancing technology and artificial intelligence in the workplace,’’ says SREB. “Automation leaves the undereducated even more vulnerable to poverty — that is, unless secondary and postsecondary education combine efforts to help more people acquire skills they need for a new, middle-skills and high-skills marketplace.”

The SREB doesn’t say states like North Carolina will fall short. But a key implicit take-away is that reaching an ambitious attainment goal won’t come on the cheap; it will require… well, ambition.

Michael Walden, the NC State University economist who has analyzed the state in the “connected age,’’ points out that the recovery from Great Recession of a decade ago produced a kind of work polarization — growth in high-paying jobs, growth in low-paying jobs, stagnation in the middle. The polarization still marks the labor market, though Walden reports that employment expanded in the past year with enough middle-paying jobs to show a “relatively balanced’’ pattern.

In its recent “Equity in Employment’’ report, the N.C. Justice Center reports, as does Walden, that state employment grew by 75,000 jobs over 12 months. But the Justice Center see signs of economic distress by digging into data beyond the low unemployment rate of 4.2%, a basic measure of how many people looking for jobs have found work. 

More than 130,000 North Carolinians want to work full time but only have part-time jobs, reports the Justice Center. More than 100,000 North Carolinians are employed through temp agencies rather than hired directly by companies. “Less than 60 percent of North Carolinians have reported being employed during most of 2019,” says the report.

In its sobering analysis, the Justice Center finds that, despite the influx of well-paid professionals in major metro areas, “North Carolina has not escaped its history as a low-wage state.” And while North Carolinians with post-secondary degrees earn much more than those with no more than a high school diploma, it says, “North Carolinians are underpaid in comparison to their peers across the country and region, up and down the education spectrum.”

As broad indicators, the state’s robust population and job growth of the past three decades suggest that North Carolina responded with substantial success to the evaporation of its old South farm-and-factory economy. The state diversified its economy, enhanced city amenities and invested in schools, community colleges, and universities.

From the vantage of a Labor Day look over its landscape of working people, North Carolina enters the third decade of this century with a daunting challenge to adapt to yet more economic transformation. Education isn’t the answer to its whole agenda, but without strong public education, North Carolina won’t give enough of its people a strong chance to thrive in the emerging economy.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.