Will the NC Chamber walk the walk?

Published August 18, 2022

By Higher Ed Works

There were lots of nice words at the NC Chamber’s annual Education and the Workforce Conference last week – lots of great ideas shared.

Which made it that much more difficult to square with the Chamber’s actions the week before. 

First, though, some of those ideas:

  • Durham Tech President J.B. Buxton said Durham County provides funds for on-site day-care at Durham Tech – a crucial wraparound service for students with young children (and presumably for students training to be child-care workers).
  • Kristie Van Auken, an advisor to State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, praised Wake Early College for giving high-school students a head start on as much as two years of college work – for free. “These kiddos are two years ahead, and they don’t have to pay for that college experience,” she said.

    Similarly, Sen. Sydney Batch, D-Wake, described how Early College students at Wake Tech’s Morrisville campus participate in a program sponsored by Eli Lilly where they spend their senior year on NC State University’s campus.
  • Panel moderator Susan Gates of SAS Institute noted that the NC State College of Engineering has over 50 engineering camps at schools across the state, reaching even into elementary schools, where math becomes a game rather than an arduous task.
  • In response to a former legislator’s question about businesses reaching out to K-12 schools to make students aware of their opportunities, Anne Jones, co-founder of the nonprofit District C, shared how seven women from Novo-Nordisk’s plant in Clayton visited Smithfield Summer High School and brought the high-school students a real problem at the plant.

    And they took five ideas that the students offered back to Novo-Nordisk with them.
  • Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D- Guilford, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher, stressed the need to expand pre-kindergarten instruction and increase subsidies for child care. “If their children are ready in kindergarten, they’re on a whole different trajectory,” Clemmons said.

    Jones noted that the Marshmallow Challenge – an exercise where participants work in teams to build a structure to elevate a marshmallow using only spaghetti, tape and string – shows that problem-solving skills are present early on. Kindergarteners tend to perform better in the exercise than business-school graduates.  “It’s there from the start,” Jones said.
  • Asked about implementing the Science of Reading in elementary schools, Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, noted that if students can read by the third grade, they have a good chance of success.2But we need to rethink a school calendar that’s still based on the agricultural calendar and implement year-round schools statewide, he said.

    Clemmons said the scientific, data-based approach to reading will help students, but it will take time for teachers who’ve taught for 20 years using different methods to adjust. “We’ve got to give it time, energy and support, so educators, children and families can make it work,” she said.
  • Buxton noted that the Triangle region now has 45 new life-science companies, despite a global pandemic. But it’s not the job of a single community college to train all the workers for those jobs, he said. For example, eight colleges will work together to train workers for VinFast, which intends to hire 7,500 workers at its electric auto plant in Chatham County.

    “When these 7,500 jobs show up, the workforce doesn’t materialize like that,” Buxton said, snapping his fingers.
  • Dr. Rosalind Dale, the Vice Provost for Engagement and Outreach at N.C. A&T State University, said that college debt is a real fear for many students, but that corporate partners have begun to step up with scholarships, particularly in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. She noted that her own son graduated debt-free. “That’s important for our students,” she said.
  • Beyond simply checking a diversity box by hiring a minority student, Dale said, would-be employees want to know about a company’s culture. “Will you allow me to be my full self?” she said.
  • Buxton said that for many of the Triangle’s new jobs, short-term credentials earned in 3-4 months are key, even for workers who already have a bachelor’s degree, in such fields as biotechnology, 911 operators and electric lineworkers. Workers don’t necessarily want to spend two more years at school. He added that Congress should expand Pell Grants to cover short-term workforce training.

DESPITE ALL THE BIG THOUGHTS, though, the words were hard to reconcile with the Chamber’s action just a week earlier to distance itself from a legal brief filed by more than 50 of the state’s most prominent business leaders

In their friend-of-the court brief, the business leaders asked the NC Supreme Court to order the state to increase school spending by $785 million in the 28-year-old Leandro case over the state constitution’s mandate that students are guaranteed access to “a sound basic education.”3 

When the chair of the Chamber was initially listed as a signer of the filing, though, the Chamber publicly protested, saying it will not participate in the case.4 

Once upon a time, the NC Chamber (then known as NC Citizens for Business and Industry) advocated for public education. Indeed, three former Chamber presidents signed the brief supporting Leandro.5

These days it seems the Chamber holds high-end conferences in Research Triangle Park, but its steps to help students in poor counties like Hoke and Halifax stop outside the courthouse door.

1 https://elearningindustry.com/marshmallow-challenge-can-learn-kindergarten-students-team-collaboration
2 https://www.higheredworks.org/2020/09/reading-not-just-about-college/
3 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/08/nc-business-leaders-fund-the-leandro-plan/
4 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article264129336.html; https://www.wral.com/editorial-nc-chamber-protects-business-tax-cuts-over-quality-education-for-kids/20407638/
5 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/08/nc-business-leaders-fund-the-leandro-plan/.