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Reconnecting to Economic Opportunity

Last week, NC State’s Institute for Emerging Issues hosted the ReCONNECT to Economic Opportunity Forum in Charlotte. One of the most pressing discussions was reconnecting North Carolina’s workers to higher-paying jobs and opportunities for economic and social mobility.

Our president and CEO, Gary Salamido, spoke on a panel with leaders from Cornerstone members Duke Energy and Novant Health to provide the employer perspective on these challenges. Stephen De May, North Carolina president for Duke Energy, discussed his company’s efforts to retrain workers with new skills to help them advance in their careers. This effort includes investments in community college workforce training programs. Novant Health’s Dr. Jerome Williams, Senior Vice President for Consumer Engagement, presented a case study on Novant’s program that removes barriers and provides support for workers transitioning from Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) to higher-paying roles as Registered Nurses (RNs). Read more about their panel in the Charlotte Business Journal here.

There were a number of detailed, exciting conversations at the event, but we’d like to highlight one discussion in particular: a case study about Tennessee Reconnect. Like North Carolina, Tennessee has a statewide educational attainment goal, which they call Drive to 55: a goal to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025. (Read more about North Carolina’s attainment goal here.)

After careful study, stakeholders in Tennessee realized that they wouldn’t be able to meet their educational attainment goal if they focused only on students expected to graduate high school by 2025. The state needed to include adults who could earn degrees and credentials through retraining or going back to school. Enter Tennessee Reconnect.

Tennessee Reconnect is the state’s initiative to help adults enter or reenter higher education to gain new skills, degrees and credentials. Through financial grants, marketing campaigns, and more, the program exposes adults to the opportunities they could unlock with degrees or credentials and helps eliminates the barriers that could prevent them from enrolling.

Emily House, deputy executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, shared that while they originally estimated 12,000 applications for Tennessee Reconnect, more than 42,000 applied. And while they expected only 8,000 to follow through on enrollment, 18,000 adults took that next step and enrolled in programs that will help increase their educational attainment and enable economic mobility.

House told the audience that Tennessee Reconnect owes much of its success to collaboration between state agencies and stakeholders. Solving the skills gap in North Carolina will similarly take collaborative efforts across business, education and government institutions. Like Tennessee, North Carolina must engage adults if we want to reach our attainment goals. That will require us to rethink the traditional view of the talent pipeline: we’re not done learning once we get to our career. Learning is a lifelong journey, and we’re making important strides toward building an aligned system that empowers everyone to develop the skills they need to succeed.