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Project Kitty Hawk: Removing Workforce Barriers, Reaching Adult Learners

L-R: Wil Zemp, CEO of Project Kitty Hawk and Meredith Archie, President of the NC Chamber Foundation

Last week during the NC Chamber’s Education & Workforce Conference, NC Chamber Foundation President Meredith Archie held a fireside chat-style session with Project Kitty Hawk CEO Wil Zemp.

In this session, attendees learned how the organization, Project Kitty Hawk, is striving to assist adult degree seekers break through the unique barriers that they face while trying to earn their degree.

For background, in 2021, the state budget appropriated $97 million for the launch of Project Kitty Hawk, which is a nonprofit ed-tech startup that will partner with UNC System universities to serve adult learners. The project will leverage best practices from the private sector, lessons from other state system initiatives, and proven strategies from leading online institutions.

Zemp said Project Kitty Hawk is focused on the state’s attainment goal which is for 2 million North Carolinians to have a high-quality credential or a postsecondary degree by 2030. Within five years, he hopes Project Kitty Hawk will have 32,000 adult learners back in the education system.

“When you couple the immediate needs of employers and long-term projections for the state’s workforce, we simply cannot afford to leave anyone on the sidelines,” said Archie. “Removing barriers to entering the workforce is a significant area of focus for the NC Chamber Foundation – which importantly includes adult learners, veterans, those who are justice involved, among others.”

This is an area where the NC Chamber Foundation and Project Kitty Hawk are aligned in their missions – recognizing the need for innovative, outcome-based solutions. The two organizations plan to work with one another toward the same goal of reaching adult learners.

In the session, Zemp explained that the barrier to adult learners is a social economic problem. “If we don’t take these necessary steps now, people will come out of the employment force, and it takes a lot more effort to get them back in,” he said.

The three major issues are that: working adults are a large underserved market in North Carolina, most UNC System schools lack the services and infrastructure to serve working adults, and current private sector offerings do not meet the needs.

Project Kitty Hawk is working to address those challenges and will help universities design workforce-aligned online programs, as well as attract, enroll, and support learners through graduation. UNC System university faculty and staff will deliver quality instruction, assess student learning, and award credentials to adult degree seekers.

The organization will also facilitate improved collaboration among campuses, better connections with employers, and improved success for nontraditional learners who are currently not enrolled or are enrolled with out-of-state providers. The organization is also looking at ways to reskill and upskill adult learners.

“What we are finding in North Carolina is that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” said Zemp.

Conference emcee Government Affairs Director Debra Derr closed out the session saying it best with this summation, “Breaking down barriers to access, partnership with employers—this is what this day is all about.”

For more information on Project Kitty Hawk: