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Business, education: Valuable partnership

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

I kept looking around the Grand Ballroom at Charlotte’s Westin hotel Wednesday afternoon hoping I’d see some top N.C. legislative leaders. They’ve been busy crafting policies and laws they say will align what businesses need in employees with what educators need to teach to supply a skilled workforce. If they weren’t there – I didn’t spot any – they missed an insightful and engaging symposium that explored that link.

The title of the symposium? “Today’s Business Crisis: Educating Tomorrow’s Workforce.” The discussion posed this question: “How can we compete in today’s global workforce if we are not challenging our schools?”

The budget plan N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory recently unveiled does pay attention to some of the issues business leaders, educators and others at the symposium identified as needs that must be addressed. McCrory’s budget includes money to help make N.C. high school graduates college and career ready – using diagnostics to identify their education weaknesses and providing help while they’re in public schools. It also provides funds for “resource-intensive community college programs in high demand by employers such as engineering, vocational and technology training,” money to the university system’s strategic directions plan that aims to prepare students for workforce demands in high-growth sectors, and invests in digital learning.

These are worthwhile strategies. Unfortunately, the budget slashes other funding for both community colleges and the university system. That undermines broader efforts to provide the quality education and essential skills students need to get a good job and succeed after graduation.

At Wednesday’s symposium, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Black Enterprise magazine, business leaders and others talked a lot about reinventing the relationship between businesses, the public schools and higher education. Johnson C. Smith University president Ron Carter urged a “seamless partnership” that worked to the benefit of the student, the business and, as crucially, the community and state.

That partnership, added Bank of America executive Stephanie Butler, calls for a year-round relationship where businesses work hand in hand with educators to help prepare students academically and through programs such as internships and mentorships that provide “a real-work pathway” to a full-time job.

Paul Myers of AREVA echoed the need for such partnering in a commentary on the Viewpoint page.

Coincidentally, a group of Charlotte business leaders joined the Charlotte Chamber on Tuesday in spotlighting a shortage of skilled workers in North Carolina. Skills to perform jobs as well as “soft skills” like communication are lacking, they said. They urged the governor and the legislature to invest more in education programs, especially for young children.

Allan Golston, president of the Gates Foundation U.S. program, laid out the stakes starkly at Wednesday’s symposium: The U.S. won’t be competitive in an increasingly global economy if things don’t change. By 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require some require some sort of post-secondary education. By then, American companies will have 123 million jobs for skilled workers. The education system is only expected to produce 50 million educated students to fill those jobs.

Additionally, Golston noted, though the college-going rate has improved dramatically for U.S. students in recent years, most who go to a college or university don’t stay to graduate. Only 20 percent are still enrolled after three years. And only 1 in 4 of African-American or Latino students have earned any type of post-secondary degree – whether certificate or two or four-year degree. At UNC Charlotte, Golston said, just 55 percent of the students graduated after six years.

The troubling result of that low graduation rate? Students leave college with huge debts but no college degree.

That’s a burden for communities as well as students. Lacking the education and skills needed for a good job, students struggle to pay off that debt; communities lose the impact of students’ higher earning power to help tackle community needs and initiatives. Indeed, far too many of these students will need help rather than being in a position to help others.

The panelists saw the need for all-hands-on-deck in changing this dynamic.

Duke Energy executive Richard “Stick” Williams said addressing the problem must start early.

“We have to capture young people by the third grade,” he said.

That’s the strategy behind a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ public-private partnership, Project LIFT. Williams is co-chair of the LIFT board, and the Duke Energy Foundation which he heads is a donor. The pre-kindergarten through high-school program aims to get low-income students excited about learning and provide them with resources and services to help them stay in school and graduate prepared to succeed in post-secondary education.

Williams also pointed to the importance of community colleges in training students for jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, and of businesses and schools partnering to get more females and minorities into engineering and other high-demand jobs.

That’s important. By 2020, the panelists agreed, the majority of students and workers will be minority. It’s to our collective benefit that they get the skills and education needed to perform in the jobs that will predominate in the future.

But the panelists also acknowledged that students of today must prepare for jobs in the 21st century that may not exist today. That means businesses and educators – and parents and others – must be ready to help students gain skills and knowledge that can transcend jobs.

A strong academic core is critical, and that starts with quality pre-K-12 education. State and local policymakers hobble students tremendously when they shortchange investments at this level. But also key are mastery of technology, teamwork and leadership skills, global thinking, reasoning and “sense-making” skills, as well as workplace experience and training.

It’s good to see businesses recognizing the value of their investment in educating tomorrow’s workforce. Now, it’s out state legislature’s turn.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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