Is the ‘American Dream’ still achievable for all?

Published 7:36 pm Friday, September 13, 2019

Written by Leslie Boney

North Carolina’s got talent. The challenge is that a lot of that adult talent doesn’t have quite the right skills or education to advance in their careers and fully support their family. The latest data shows that of the 1.35 million adults in our state with a high school education or less, 74% are making less than $35,000 a year. For most of these folks, the problem isn’t a willingness to work hard, but to find jobs that pay enough for them to support a family, buy a home or have a margin if something goes wrong.

For the past six months, the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University has been studying what it takes to move into a family-sustaining job in 2019, talking with job holders and job seekers, employers, educators and supportive organizations. There appear to be two different kinds of barriers.

The first is a mismatch between what people know and what employers need them to know. More than half of employers in the state report having difficulty finding people to fill jobs, with roughly half of those employers reporting challenges with technical skills, soft skills or education. The My Future NC Commission puts a number on this challenge: if we do nothing, we will fall 400,000 workers short of the number with a “meaningful credential” our businesses will need by 2030.

Our second challenge is that adult workers struggling in low-income jobs lack the connections they need to move up. In some cases, they lack the connections to get child care or transportation or cash flow they may need while they are getting training in new skills. In other cases, they lack knowledge about where the promising jobs are, how to get the training they need or the steps it takes to apply.

Of course it’s one thing to know what the problem is, and another to figure out how to address it. As we’ve looked across the state we’ve identified five innovative programs that appear to be “getting it right” — five places that are showing our state how to get adult workers the skills and connections they need to move from jobs to family-sustaining jobs. We’ll be featuring them at our statewide conference called ReCONNECT to Economic Opportunity, Oct. 15 in Charlotte, and I believe people and organizations all across the state can learn a lot from them.

Beaufort County is one of those places. Beaufort County Economic Development, Beaufort County Community College, Beaufort County Schools, NCWorks and the Region Q Workforce Board have formed a partnership seeking to collaborate with local businesses, workers and students to develop a more skilled workforce, particularly for the area’s manufacturing industry.

“The demand for workforce and the demand for skills is increasing,” said Martyn Johnson, the director of Beaufort County Economic Development. “So we came together to try and address those issues and also the issue that people think there aren’t many jobs in Beaufort County when there are.”

Teaching students about the kinds of careers available to them and providing training and apprenticeship programs for workers are just a few of the ways this partnership is helping develop a more skilled workforce in Beaufort County.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for adult workers struggling to move up economically. But hundreds of thousands of people want to do so. With more programs like the one in Beaufort County, they’ll have a better chance of doing so.

Leslie Boney is the director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.