Skip to Content

Securing a Skilled Workforce: Championing Students’ Unique Journeys to Job Opportunities

The NC Chamber is conducting a Q&A series with North Carolina’s education leaders to learn about their plans and priorities for our students during this pivotal year and beyond. Following our conversation with State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, the NC Chamber interviewed UNC System President Peter Hans to discover how our public universities are advancing access to higher education and preparing North Carolinians with the skills that achieve business needs and rewarding careers.

Recognizing that each student faces a unique journey to job opportunity, the NC Chamber is committed to identifying and championing high-quality academic pathways that lead to college readiness programs or career training such as apprenticeships and technical education. Continuous collaboration with our educational institutions will enhance employers’ efforts in recruiting and retaining a competitive, diverse, and world-class workforce for North Carolina.

A Conversation with UNC System President Peter Hans

NC Chamber: What will it take for North Carolina to achieve our education attainment goal: two million North Carolinians with a degree or valuable credential by 2030?

PH: We have a whole lot of smart, talented North Carolinians who weren’t in a position to get a degree right after high school. A lot of those people reach a point in their lives or careers when they want to make a change, when they need to take the next big step. And UNC needs to be there for them. That means more programs that start year-round, that offer flexible class times and online options, that give credit for what working adults have already learned on the job.

We are working much more closely with our 58 community colleges than ever before. We’ve kept tuition for in-state undergraduates flat for five years in a row. And I’m committed to simplifying the state’s overly complex financial aid process, which will increase access for students of all ages.

How has the pandemic impacted this goal, particularly in our rural communities?

This season of hardship has taken its toll. In many ways, our schools, colleges, and universities have done their best to keep students on the academic path, but it hasn’t been easy. We know that online learning does not suit every student, and if there is anything that this crisis has taught us, it is that face-to-face instruction is crucial to the success of our students.

We have a lot of catching up to do as a state as this pandemic subsides. Some students did not pursue higher education because of financial circumstances, and some had to take on jobs to help support their families. I’m focused on supporting lower income and first-generation college students who need a credential or degree to be able to succeed in today’s job market.

What is the role of the UNC System in training workers who lost their jobs because of the pandemic and are seeking new career opportunities?

We are seeing a decade of economic transformation packed into the last 12 months. Companies are automating jobs faster, changing how and where their employees work, rethinking how they deliver services. And the upshot is that many people will need to acquire new skills in a hurry, so our academic programs must be matched to the state’s needs.

I want to see us partner directly with employers to create programs that let people keep working while they earn a degree; I want to see us get better at awarding credit for knowledge and experience, even if it didn’t come in a classroom. Last year, we produced more than 27,000 graduates in critical workforce areas, including fields like STEM, health sciences, and teacher preparation. The UNC System is primed to meet those needs over the next decade.

How can the UNC System collaborate with employers statewide to match educational programs with workforce development so that the skills students obtain fulfill business needs?

As we move to build a better workforce pipeline and ecosystem, we’re going to be especially focused on strong communication. With our state’s businesses. With our partners at community colleges. With our K-12 public school system. And with our own students about their end game.

We also know that students gain value from their experiences in and out of the classroom. I want to see more paid internship programs — so all students can participate, more co-op programs where students work with employers to complement the skills they’re learning in the classroom, and a lot more direct partnerships where adult learners can go back to school while they’re still working full-time.

You’re already seeing universities add more specific skills — like data analysis and project management — to the traditional disciplines. A lot of those foundational skills are already there, and we need to help students more explicitly see the connection to the working world.

Streamlining pathways from community colleges to four-year universities will save time and money for our students. How are you improving the transfer process to benefit both educational systems while advancing access for students?

I believe I’m our state’s first transfer president, having moved directly from the community colleges to the university system, so I have a personal appreciation for how challenging that jump can be. We’ve gotten better about transfer policies over the last few years, but I still don’t think we’re welcoming nearly enough community college students into the university system.

There are a lot of very straightforward things we’re doing right now to make this easier. Common course numbering, so you know how classes match up between community colleges and universities. Better degree auditing and advising, so our community colleges are proactive in telling students when they’re ready to transfer. And on the university side, more active recruitment from community colleges, because we know there’s such a deep well of talent there.

How can we address the rising costs of higher education, a major barrier for many students pursuing degrees?

Thanks to the generous support of the taxpayers and careful management on campuses, we haven’t had a tuition increase in the UNC System over the last five years. And at three of our campuses, tuition dropped to $500 a semester, thanks to the NC Promise program created by the legislature. Student debt in North Carolina is actually lower now than it was five years ago.

Tuition and fees are the big tickets that get a lot of attention, but there are so many other costs that pile up, things like housing, dining, and books. We’ve got to get a handle on that total cost of attendance. I’m trying to strategically direct part of the most recent round of federal relief funds for higher education to keep housing and dining costs from rising over the coming years.

How can business leaders help in making North Carolina first in FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) completion?

The myFutureNC campaign is all about raising our expectations beyond a high school diploma. Whether it’s an apprenticeship, a workforce certificate, a four-year degree, or a graduate degree, education beyond high school is fast becoming an imperative in the job market.

We also should help advise our students that there are affordable options in higher education, especially in North Carolina. To that end, you can sponsor FAFSA workshops, give your employees paid time to volunteer at FAFSA completion events, or sponsor scholarships for students who complete the FAFSA.

I greatly appreciate all the NC Chamber does to support higher education!