“Closing the Skills Gap”

Much of Governor Pat McCrory’s policy on higher education revolves around a catch phrase: “closing the skills gap.” Mirroring a national policy touted by President Obama and Vice President Biden, McCrory’s drive to “close the skills gap” reflects his vision of the community college system as an underutilized hero in waiting, and of the industry-driven economy as a damsel in distress.

McCrory’s view, one pushed by people ranging from manufacturers to Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe, is that many technical and vocational jobs are waiting to be filled, but that the workforce is not rising to the challenge. The solution, as McCrory sees it, is to make schools focus on developing skills needed for these high-demand industries. And community colleges are an important part of that process.

Backing words with funding, the governor wants to increase the community college system’s budget. After the system’s 58 institutions saved $17.2 million through remedial education reform and an enrollment drop, McCrory proposed injecting $16.8 million back into the system. Meanwhile, the governor asked for more than $49 million in cuts to UNC.

A new tier of enrollment funding, says the governor’s budget, “will include health care and technical education programs that train North Carolinians for jobs having documented skills gaps and paying higher wages.”

This new spending appears to be the backbone of the administration’s “NCWorks” campaign, an initiative announced last month. Speaking at the Caterpillar plant in Sanford on April 14, McCrory said the campaign’s one goal is “connecting North Carolina jobs with North Carolina people.”

NCWorks is a joint project of the Department of Commerce and the community college system. It is spearheaded by executive director Will Collins, who was hired on December 9 as the assistant secretary of commerce. However, he receives half of his salary from the community college system.

There are several components to the NCWorks campaign, as outlined in an April press release. Some of them are vague. For example, one of the campaign’s planks is to “recharge the Commission on Workforce Development.” The commission was convened to comply with the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and is made up of 25 people, a combination of state agency heads, organized labor representatives, and business leaders.

Why did the commission need recharging? Catherine Moga Bryant, the director of governance and strategic planning at the Department of Commerce Division of Workforce Solutions, said it “historically hasn’t taken that strong of a role” in solving workforce problems. She added, “Maybe [they] weren’t being proactive in trying to move the workforce system forward in a consistent, cohesive sort of way.”

Linda Weiner, the vice president for engagement and strategic innovation at the community college system office, added, “It really hadn’t been empowered to help pull the strategic plan together.”

In sum, the commission does not seem to have been effective so far, but the administration is giving it another shot—particularly since a workforce investment board is required by federal law.

In February, McCrory installed Korey Coon, a human resources director from Caterpillar, as the commission’s new chair. It is not clear whether the reach of this “recharge” extends beyond hiring Coon.

Other facets of NCWorks include obtaining feedback from North Carolina businesses, a new state job search engine called NCWorks Online, and encouraging participation in the state-sponsored apprenticeship program.

The apprenticeship program is partially a collaboration between community colleges and industry, although the apprentices themselves are juniors and seniors in high school. This month’s meeting of the State Board of Community Colleges highlighted Caterpillar’s apprenticeship program. (Other major participants besides Caterpillar include Siemens and Bühler Aeroglide.) Under the company’s welding apprenticeship, students spend after-school hours taking welding classes at Central Carolina and working at Caterpillar for $10 an hour. They go on to receive certificates from the college and the Commerce Department.

The apprenticeship program reduces the hiring load for connected companies. Moga Bryant noted that “A lot of business people are busy and they don’t have a full H.R. program.”

“It’s a great pipeline for talent,” said Korey Coon in an interview. “It’s harder and harder to find good talent for your workforce.”

Coon added that community colleges provide some equipment for the apprenticeship programs that companies do not have.

But the apprentice program appears to be languishing. At the state board meeting, System president Scott Ralls said at the meeting that there are only 3,000 participants in North Carolina’s modern apprenticeship program. This is an all-time low; the number reached 8,000 at one point. From 2003 to 2013, the participation declined by 40 percent. Will Collins unfavorably contrasted America’s use of apprentices with the success of Germany’s system. He said that in Germany, there are 17 apprentices for every 1,000 people; in the U.S. workforce, he said, there is only one apprentice per 1,000 people.

Part of what the government is doing to encourage participation is waiving fees that it implemented in 2009 in the midst of the financial crisis. The main focus of NCWorks is to improve communication between the schools and industry, however.

In an interview with the Pope Center, Will Collins said that the NCWorks initiative is about improving “customer service”—meaning government response to the demands of industry. His first task as executive director of NCWorks is to spend six months on a workforce development plan, wrapping up at the end of September. Part of this plan, beginning in September, will include, according to a state press release, meeting with “1,000 companies in 100 counties in 100 days.”

Local teams featuring representatives from community colleges, the public school system, Commerce’s workforce solutions division, and business representatives, will survey employers. They will invite employers’ opinions on how to address the skills gap and how to “get students ready for the work environment,” as Collins put it.

The drive will also assess the hiring needs of different industries. In a similar drive called Align4NCWorks, the community college has been holding “workforce learning summits” in which community college representatives visit community colleges around the state and hear from the colleges’ local “workforce partners” about best practices.

Another attempt at improving the relationship between industry and higher education is an employment website at NCWorks.gov, which replaces a previous site called NC JobConnector. Catherine Moga Bryant said that the previous job site, NC JobConnector, was so poorly managed that it was obsolete before it went live.

And Moga Bryant said that the new site saves the government $800,000 a year, because it performs functions that were previously handled by “eight or nine different computer systems.”

NCWorks Online allows employers and employees to advertise themselves, much in the same vein as Monster.com, Indeed.com, or CareerBuilder. But it is more than a job search hub, said Moga Bryant. “I think that our site is unique in that it has some [real-time] labor market information,” she said. The Labor Economic Analysis Division of the Department of Commerce, the same group putting together the industry feedback surveys, provides this information. It is also free to employers and job seekers.

The McCrory administration’s strategy to connect employers with students and graduates is hardly off the ground, but it elicits some questions. For example, one might question the wisdom of using state resources to push a clearly unpopular apprenticeship program. One might also question the need for a state-run jobs site to compete with sites like Monster.com. And how is the “recharging” of the federally mandated commission to occur?

Also, if manufacturers have already indicated that the workforce doesn’t have the skills required for the available jobs, might it be redundant to spend three months asking why they aren’t hiring?

The next year or two will reveal whether the administration’s workforce development policy is as appealing as the slogans marketing it.