Take care of those who take care of us

Published March 16, 2023

By Higher Ed Works

State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told a state House committee last week that he needs at least $7 million to increase pay in his department.

Troxler, a popular Republican, told legislators his 2,033-person agency has 278 vacancies, and those vacancies are increasingly hard to fill. Even when jobs are filled, he said, workers are recruited away by private employers or other state agencies that pay better.

“We’re training people for private industry. I think it’s a better investment to train them and keep them,” Troxler said.1

Once again, for those who profess allegiance to the free market, the market is working quite well. And it’s working across the board in state government and its education institutions.

Workers in Troxler’s department include lab technicians and PhDs – educated folks. But the state simply isn’t doing enough to compete for talent, whether it’s for child-care workers, K-12 teachers, nursing instructors or staff at the state’s community colleges.

When state legislators adopted a budget last year, they granted state workers a raise of 3.5% and K-12 teachers an average raise of 4.2% — in the same month the inflation rate hit 8.6%. That was effectively a pay cut.2

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office reported last week that the state still has 1,400 vacant jobs – a 10-year high for many agencies. And State Budget Director Kristin Walker said yesterday that more than 23% of state jobs are vacant.3

School started this year with more than 4,400 K-12 teacher vacancies.4 The State Board of Education has asked legislators for a 10% raise for teachers, and the Public School Forum of North Carolina called for a 24.5% increase.

Cooper recommended a budget yesterday that would grant teachers an 18% raise over two years. Other state employees would receive an 8% increase over two years.

The governor’s proposal also calls for a $1,500 retention bonus for state employees who make less than $75,000, and a $1,000 retention bonus for those who make more than $75,000.5

Elementary and middle schools and agricultural labs aren’t the only places feeling strain, though. 

Former UNC Wilmington Chancellor Jose “Zito” Sartarelli warned last year that he was losing skilled staff in audit, information technology and human resource positions.6 Similarly, community-college officials say they are losing critical staff, particularly in information technology fields, who leave for jobs that often pay them $10,000-20,000 more.

Whether state legislators will agree to Cooper’s proposed raises remains to be seen, though. In a statement soon after Cooper revealed his proposal, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore called it “the same reckless approach to spending that his fellow Democrats have taken in Washington.”

But the state has no shortage of funds this year. Officials are sitting on a budget surplus last estimated at $3.25 billion.7  

If state legislators want to serve the needs of a rapidly growing state, they need to take care of the people who provide those services.

1 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article272979605.html.
2 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/07/a-pay-cut/
3 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article272994945.html
4 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article264526776.html
5 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article272994945.html; https://www.wral.com/cooper-calls-for-18-teacher-raises-over-next-two-years/20764939/
6 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/05/inflation-our-people-are-affected-dramatically/
7 https://www.wral.com/forecast-north-carolina-expects-3b-plus-surplus-this-year/20722221/.