Public Service

Preparing the workforce for economic recovery

The UNC School of Government was awarded more than $906,000 from the John M. Belk Endowment to launch 10 Local Educational Attainment Collaboratives across North Carolina.

Anita Brown-Graham in front of the UNC School of Government
Anita Brown-Graham in front of the UNC School of Government in 2019.

Anita Brown-Graham often says, “Collaboration is where the magic happens.” And she would know.

As director of the ncIMPACT Initiative at the UNC School of Government and host of PBS North Carolina’s ncIMPACT public affairs program, Brown-Graham examines the state’s complex policy issues, such as the opioid crisis, COVID-19 learning loss and unemployment, among others. She and her team are on the ground, talking to the people who make the magic happen, bringing successful community collaborations to light and identifying ways to apply innovative solutions in communities across the state.

Now, with support from the John M. Belk Endowment, the ncIMPACT Initiative is partnering with the statewide nonprofit organization myFutureNC to better align the state’s education system with the needs of the economy.

“This partnership takes our earlier work with local education cross-sector collaboratives a few steps further,” shared Brown-Graham, who is also Carolina’s Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government. “Rather than identifying and profiling what makes these initiatives so successful, this time we are working to support their development toward becoming national models for increasing education levels and employment skills. We want to bring together entire communities — entire ecosystems of actors — to help our students get from cradle to career.”

Communities will be selected as myFutureNC Local Educational Attainment Collaboratives and will work to significantly increase the number of individuals with postsecondary degrees, credentials or certifications of value in the workforce. UNC Rural will also provide support for collaboratives from rural communities.

“We want to have communities participate from all across North Carolina,” said Brown-Graham. “We want to ensure we have a diverse arch of collaboratives that will offer a variety of perspectives among the cohort. We want communities that have high-functioning collaboratives and others that might be struggling to move the needle.”

The two-year pilot program supports myFutureNC’s goal to ensure that 2 million North Carolinians between the ages of 25 and 44 have a high-quality credential or postsecondary degree by 2030.

“From the beginning, we’ve recognized that progress toward North Carolina’s 2 million by 2030 goal happens when the alignment and coordination of educational attainment efforts are both state-led and locally owned,” said MC Belk Pilon, president and board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment. “These community-led collaboratives will be critical to building the workforce of today, tomorrow and the future.”

The state’s goal needs to be bold because the statistics are alarming. By 2030, it is projected that 67% of jobs in North Carolina will require a high-quality credential or postsecondary degree. As of 2019, only 49% of North Carolinians between the ages of 25 and 44 have completed that level of education.

“We have employers who cannot find enough qualified people and people who cannot find jobs, and we haven’t always done a good enough job making sure the labor market is transparent,” noted Brown-Graham. “For example, there are a number of certifications and short-term credentials for jobs in manufacturing, mechatronics and welding with wages that can be upward of $70,000. People don’t necessarily know about that.”

Once selected, the 10 Local Educational Attainment Collaboratives will receive peer support, robust technical assistance and critical financial investment.

“We are pleased that the John M. Belk Endowment is supporting this important work that aligns so well with our school’s mission to improve the lives of North Carolinians and the goals of our ncIMPACT Initiative,” said Mike Smith, dean of the UNC School of Government. “The school has a long history of partnering with organizations committed to creating a brighter future for North Carolina. We look forward to creating change through this collaborative effort.”

Carolina’s culture of collaboration will be instrumental in conducting this important work. The UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute will help evaluate the impact of the collaboratives in each community, and the UNC School of Education and UNC College of Arts & Sciences’ public policy department — whose work is also supported by the John M. Belk Endowment — are working together to conduct several studies that evaluate the efficacy of existing programs designed to make higher education more attainable. The teams will disseminate their findings to offer policymakers and educators insights into sustainable, evidence-based practices.

Brown-Graham said they also encourage the Local Educational Attainment Collaboratives to think about the existing workforce as they consider ways to close the skills gap.

“For the state to reach this goal, we have to think beyond students matriculating through the education system and find ways to support the people already in the workforce by providing retraining and upskilling opportunities. This work is about more than the economic prosperity of the state — it’s also about the survival of communities and their residents.”

Applications are open now through March 29 for North Carolina communities wishing to participate in the program. Communities can apply as county teams, municipal-county partnerships or multicounty partnerships.

Visit ncimpact.org to learn more about the ncIMPACT Initiative at the UNC School of Government, myfuturenc.org to learn more about myFutureNC, and jmbendowment.org to learn more about the John M. Belk Endowment.