Contributed by Jason Rochelle, Golden LEAF Program Officer
As the Golden LEAF Foundation enters the second year of a five-year strategic plan, the Foundation continues its work funding strategies to improve the economic conditions of North Carolina’s rural and tobacco-dependent communities. One of the Foundation’s identified strategies focuses on improving the quantity and quality of the skilled workforce in communities served by Golden LEAF. This requires retaining the best and brightest young people, attracting and retaining in-demand skilled workers, and funding effective workforce preparedness programs to fill the local talent pipeline.
myFutureNC, a statewide nonprofit organization, focuses on educational attainment and is the result of cross-sector collaboration between North Carolina leaders in education, business, and government. Annually, myFutureNC reports on 18 key performance indicators via its Educational Attainment Report. According to the report, only 31% of 9th graders will earn a college degree or industry-valued credential within six years after high school graduation. The report reveals similar data points across the continuum of educational outcomes, including academic readiness, college and career access, postsecondary completion, and labor market alignment. The Report also provides examples of promising practices in the field deserving of increased attention.
In reviewing the December 2022 update to the Educational Attainment Report, several areas of alignment with Golden LEAF investments can be found, including improving college and career access, postsecondary completion, and workforce alignment with industry need.
College and Career Access
Regarding college and career access, the Report reveals that only 40% of 18-24 year olds were enrolled in a postsecondary institution in 2021. To meet myFutureNC’s enrollment goals by 2030 and meet future industry demand for skilled workers, the state will need to increase postsecondary enrollment by an additional 70,682 students each year. Enhanced access to postsecondary education is an area where Golden LEAF has committed significant resources. Since its inception, Golden LEAF has provided $60 million in scholarship funding to 29,000 rural students. In fiscal year 2022 alone, Golden LEAF provided 711 new and renewal scholarships to students attending our state’s colleges and universities.
The need to drive up community college enrollment is even more pressing, as community colleges have seen enrollment drop by 13% since 2019, according to the Report. Golden LEAF has encouraged greater community college enrollment, having provided 2,008 scholarships to rural community college students in curriculum degree programs in the 2021-2022 school year. To overcome these enrollment challenges, Golden LEAF’s investment in scholarships will continue to remain an essential tool to encourage more students, especially in rural and economically distressed areas to seek a postsecondary degree.
To meet the growing industry demand, scholarships must extend beyond two- and four-year degree programs. myFutureNC has identified short-term workforce training as an area that will require particular attention. It is estimated that, by 2028, an additional 8.1% of North Carolina’s jobs will require some college or a short-term credential, but not necessarily a two- or four-year degree. Such short-term credentials are often provided through community colleges’ continuing education programs. Golden LEAF requires that community colleges participating in its scholarship program dedicate at least 25% of their available Golden LEAF scholarship funds to students taking continuing education courses. In school year 2021- 2022, Golden LEAF scholarship funds were provided to 1,196 students participating in continuing education programs. Ongoing investments by Golden LEAF and others in this area will help students overcome financial obstacles and support enrollment in the short-term training programs essential to meet future workforce demands.
Alignment of Programs and Identified Industry Need
Another area of shared focus for Golden LEAF and myFutureNC is increased alignment between available community college programs, credentials earned, and identified industry need. MyFutureNC reports that 81% of North Carolina employers who tried to recruit in 2022 reported difficulty in hiring. Many factors related to industry growth and innovation play a role in these hiring difficulties. Local industries are rarely static, with some growing rapidly and quickly outstripping the available supply of skilled labor.
Two such recent initiatives developed to meet a regional industry need are the Golden LEAF funded boat building programs at Beaufort County Schools and Beaufort County Community College. These programs work together with local boat manufacturing companies to create a curriculum that is responsive to the needs of employers. The programs also offer a seamless pathway for students to earn industry credentials at the high school level and then move on to an aligned community college program, with the goal of ultimately securing a position in this growing regional industry. These two programs are still in the early years of implementation, but they are already beginning to fill the needs of local boat building companies essential to their long-term success.
Another great example of Golden LEAF’s investments creating a strong workforce is the Surry-Yadkin Works program. Initially started with an investment of $254,346 from Golden LEAF, the program provided Surry County High School students with access to career pathways targeting advanced manufacturing, health sciences, agriculture and other trade and industry employment sectors. Hallmarks of the program included virtual courses, college and career counseling, and linkages to internships and apprenticeships. Early partners included Surry Community College and local industry partners. The program was tremendously successful, eventually adding Elkin City Schools, Mount Airy City Schools, and Yadkin County Schools, and a host of new industry partners. In its most recent reporting for the Spring 2022 semester, the program placed 80 interns with 44 local businesses and organizations. The program is now fully funded by Surry County Commissioners, Yadkin County Commissioners, and an anonymous donor.
Reaching Opportunity Youth and Beyond
To meet the attainment goals cited by myFutureNC and meet tomorrow’s industry needs, we will need to significantly increase the labor force participation rate. This means reaching beyond traditional populations. In the Educational Attainment Report, myFutureNC highlights several groups that should be reengaged in the educational process, including adult learners more generally and specifically opportunity youth, which are defined as individuals 16-24 years old not in school or working. Golden LEAF has funded several projects that align with these targeted strategies. Launched in January 2020, the Golden LEAF Opportunities for Work (GLOW) program was a special initiative designed to increase labor participation and meet employer demand by supporting adults with significant barriers to employment, the long-term unemployed, as well as underemployed workers in low-wage jobs, the previously incarcerated, and individuals in recovery from substance-use disorders reenter the workforce. In 2020, the Golden LEAF Board of Directors awarded $3.49 million to 10 GLOW projects to address this issue. As of August 2022, these GLOW projects had collectively served 699 people, resulting in 177 curriculum or continuing education program completers, 567 credentials earned, and 381 people employed. Similar creativity and innovation will be needed as we move forward to engage both traditional and non-traditional populations to meet this growing demand for skilled labor.
Progress Made, Opportunities Ahead
At the 2023 State of Educational Attainment, myFutureNC shared the challenge ahead for building N.C.’s future workforce. The educational data clearly shows where progress has been made and where more work is needed. In turn the Golden LEAF Foundation, looks forward to continuing to support strategies that help rural N.C. communities reach their educational attainment goals to meet the demands of industry now and in the future through its Golden LEAF Scholars Program, funding for traditional workforce programs in high schools and higher centers of learning, and investments in innovative training programs that reengage non-traditional learners. Together, we will build tomorrow’s skilled workforce.