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The rise of ‘career pathways’ and what that means for our students and our state

Last week, Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Mark Johnson and Community College System President Peter Hans visited North Wake College and Career Academy and declared February Career Pathways Month. A few weeks ago, Gov. Cooper declared the week of January 28 as Career Pathways Week. The state’s leaders are emphasizing the importance of career pathways as a way to signal to students and parents that a four-year degree is not the only path to a successful career.

As EducationNC’s Liz Bell reported, Johnson said, “Not every student in North Carolina has to go to a four-year institution to be a success in North Carolina. It’s an important message that we are getting to middle schoolers, to high schoolers, and they are hearing the message. We want to ask for North Carolina’s help in getting this message out.”

For those just tuning in, you might be wondering how we got here. After all, a few years ago, the message to most parents and students was that every child should aspire to a four-year degree. When I taught middle school English six years ago, it was common practice to name your classes after popular four-year colleges and line the walls of your classroom and hallways with four-year college pennants.

While you will still see this in many schools today, the narrative is shifting, with businesses, community colleges, and many K-12 teachers calling for an end to the “four-year college for all” message. The announcement by Johnson and Hans on Monday is a reflection of this shift and a recognition that other pathways, including high-quality credentials and associate degrees, can offer a route to a successful career.

Why the change? Much of it has to do with the growing demand for highly-skilled workers in fields that do not require a four-year degree but instead require an associate degree or industry credential or certificate. Business and community college leaders believe the push towards four-year degrees has contributed to the shortage of students going into these technical fields, even though the jobs and family-supporting wages are there.

As we’ve traveled across the state visiting community colleges, we keep hearing about the skills gap — there are too few North Carolinians with the postsecondary education, training, and skills required to meet the state’s growing demand for highly-skilled workers. I wrote about this issue in a June Weekly Insight:

“Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Center on Education and the Workforce projected that by 2020, ’65 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training, up from 28 percent in 1973.’ However, as of 2016, only 47 percent of North Carolina adults ages 25-64 years old hold a postsecondary credential with significant gaps by race and ethnicity.”

In our community college visits, we’ve seen what this looks like in person. A few weeks ago, members of the EdNC team and the John M. Belk Endowment visited Stanly Community College to take a look at their advanced manufacturing center, specifically the heavy equipment operations, collision repair and refinishing technology, and welding technology programs. At every program, we heard about the growing demand for skilled workers in these areas. For example, just in the collision repair and refinishing technology field, there were 2,293 job openings in 2018 in the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia metropolitan area and the city of Albemarle with a median income of $24.42 an hour and 2,494 projected jobs in 2023, according to EMSI data.

Community college leaders and instructors are quick to point out that these are not the manufacturing jobs of the past. Many believe that the stigma associated with manufacturing after the loss of plants and large-scale layoffs has contributed to the shortage of students interested in these fields. Yet walk into any advanced manufacturing center at a community college and you are likely to see students learning how to code and program the technology that actually operates the machinery. As I was told at one community college, these are not the “dirty” manufacturing plants with which our students’ parents and grandparents are familiar.

Even in the automotive repair field, technicians need more skills and training in technology now than ever before. Billy Huneycutt, head of the collision repair and refinishing technology program at Stanly Community College, explained the shift:

“When we got into this industry, you just hired a guy off the street. He didn’t have to go to school. You could teach them what they needed to know and it wouldn’t take them that long because the technology wasn’t there and the technology wasn’t in the cars. That isn’t today. I can go ahead and tell you when Tesla rolled out — it’s a whole new animal. I’m the one who had to spearhead it in our shop, and it’s a whole different learning curve. You got something that can kill you. You make a wrong move and it’s a high voltage car and it can kill you.”

The rapid pace of technological change means that these shifts and new learning curves Huneycutt is talking about are happening in almost every technical field. It also means that workers who were trained 10 and 20 years ago need the ability to re-train, or upskill as it is now called.

In last week’s Friday@Five newsletter, I highlighted recommendations from a Brookings Institute report on the impacts of automation and artificial intelligence that have particular salience here. Given the rapid pace of technological change and the risk of automation in some fields, including transportation and construction, the authors recommend investing in reskilling incumbent workers, expanding accelerated learning and certifications, and making skill development more financially accessible.

As North Carolina policymakers and leaders call for a greater emphasis on alternative career pathways, they must also think about how students who enter technical fields can gain access to education and reskilling over the course of their careers, not just on the front end.

Editor’s note: EducationNC receives funding from the John M. Belk Endowment. 

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and Chief Operating Officer for EducationNC.