RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The News & Observer on Thursday should have been required reading as a handout at the Emerging Issues Forum.

As business, education and political leaders from around the state gathered for the event, which focused on the importance of education to North Carolina’s economy, The N&O contained two very important headlines:

  • "Google Muscled N.C. officials" across the top of Page One.
  • “N.C. has most dropouts in years” with the subhead “Triangle’s trends are most pronounced in Wake, Johnston.”

The headlines should have made the crowd gathered at the McKimmon Center for the conference shiver more than the cold, sleet and snow outside.

Not even the high-tech Research triangle is immune from the education challenge.

Lenovo Chief Executive Officer William Amelio told the audience in blunt language as the opening keynote speaker that no country or state can take a company for granted anymore. In a global marketplace where competition is increasing, companies hoping to succeed must have well educated workers, he said. If a state or country can’t deliver, companies will move elsewhere.

On the stage behind Amelio sat Erskine Bowles, head of the University of North Carolina System, and four-time Governor Jim Hunt.

While no one in the audience was heard to gasp at Amelio’s remarks, they certainly were heard.

North Carolina and the United States continues to face an education challenge. Those dropout rates (22,000, the most since the 1999-2000 school year, according to the N&O) are just one indicator.

The state must improve its education efforts, or it’s bye-bye to the high-tech and life science companies on which its leaders are basing North Carolina’s future.

Which brings us to Google.

The global Internet giant knew it had a strong hand in negotiating with North Carolina for that $600 million server farm. The N&O’s Jonathan Cox lays out in riveting detail how local and state officials were browbeaten into keeping negotiations secret. And Google did just like any other business these days – it participating in the actually writing of legislation that led to some $100 million in tax breaks over 30 years.

But did North Carolina and officials in Lenoir and Caldwell County have any choice rather than to cave? That area has been hammered by losses in furniture, textile and manufacturing. Jobs requiring minimal education (I won’t say skill, though; many jobs did require artisans) are disappearing fast in this state – and country.

Google won – because North Carolina’s economy isn’t evolving fast enough.

In the future, the state will lose even more if the dropout rates continue to worsen.