States and countries that figure out how to compete in the coming jobs wars will be big economic winners, Lewis Ebert, president and CEO of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, told about 200 people at the Chamber’s 2017 Conference on Educationat the Sheraton Imperial in Durham on Thursday.

Many government and corporate leaders in attendance agreed with him.

Citing a recent international Gallup poll, Ebert said, “The number one concern everywhere is a good job and there are 1.2 billion more people than there are good jobs.”

A look at the event’s sponsors suggests the type of firms most interested in stimulating the development of advanced skills in the job force. They include Biogen, IBM, SAS, Red Hat, AT&T, and MCNC.

Fortunately, he said, “North Carolina has a plan.”

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The business focused plan created in 2013 aimed to create 1 million new jobs and “We’re well on our way to doing that. But we can’t do it alone. We can’t win unless NC is a top state for talent and in the jobs war, education and talent are what it’s all about. Business, as the number one consumer of talent, is a leading advocate for education reform,” Ebert said.

Start early

The reason is simple, even if the solution is not. The number one problem in NC and elsewhere is a skills gap. “Gaps are slowing down our economy by a half to a full point of the GDP. Across the state, businesses have jobs without people to fill them and we have to figure out how to meet that problem,” Ebert said.

One effort to prepare the state for its future needs starts early in the education process. It looks to transform the workforce through developing early literacy. Its goal is to make students read efficiently by the third grade.

It’s based on research that shows that if students are not reading proficiently by the third grade, they fall behind, far fewer graduate high school, and many will be stuck in low-paying jobs.

In a panel discussing the topic, Jim Hansen, regional president, Eastern Carolinas, PNC Bank, pointed out: “Increasing access to Pre-K (pre-Kindergarten) is the foundation on which literacy skills can be built. Without it, too many students lag behind.” PNC has invested $350 million over 13 years in an early education program called “Grow Up Great,” to address the problem.

Making a long term bet

A Duke University report shows the benefit of early education programs, he said. “It looked at 13 years of data and 1 million NC children. Those in Pre-K programs, which start at age 4, had higher scores in reading and math later, significant reductions of drop outs, and a lasting impact on their progress.”

In NC, he noted, 55 percent of children are not being served. Last year, 29,000 students of 66,000 eligible participated in Pre-K programs. This year the NC legislature increased access to 3,525 students over the next two years at a cost of $27 million. “We know there is a cost,” Hansen said. “But it’s a step forward. We’re making a long term bet on those children, our future workforce.”

Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T Carolina, pointed out that 36 states, including NC, have passed legislation to address reading proficiency by the third grade.

Much work needs to be done, Harrison said. It requires a data system that tracks student progress to allow intervention as needed and interagency alignment. Part of that may be accomplished via the new a Birth though 3rd grade (B-3) Interagency Council to facilitate sharing of data from providers and state agencies.

Dale Jenkins, CEO of Medical Mutual Holdings Inc., one of 12 NC companies so far engaged in A CEO action plan supporting policy agendas to support children on a path to reading proficiency by third grade.

“A detailed plan can have tremendous impact,” Jenkins said. In one very specific, very targeted way, we can make that impact.” SAS CEO Jim Goodnight initiated the “Why Reading Matters and what to do about it” initiative.

After the panel, Ebert summed up, “We can’t compete in NC if kids aren’t ready to go to work and getting them ready starts earlier than we think.”

Certified Work Ready Communities

The final morning panel discussed “Local Leadership in Action.” Panelists Nore Brantley, High school to work partnership coordinator at E.E. Smith High School in Cumberland County; Meaghan Lewis, Chamber Government Affairs Manager; Reeves McGlohon, Interim president and CEO of Gaston Regional Chamber; Deborah Murray, executive director, Caldwell County Economic Development Commission; and Jay Todd, COO, Service Thread, discussed the NCWorks Certified Work Ready Communities program.

In 2011, the NCEast Alliance piloted the program, which now has 13 NC counties certified as work ready communities and ten others, including Wake, participating.

Murray said was devastated by the “great recession,” and saw its unemployment rate soar from 2 percent to 17 percent. Caldwell County had been a “one engine economy focused on brand name furniture and “lost 10,000 jobs in eight years,” she said.

The Certified Ready for Work certificates (CRC) potential employees earn by passing a skills test helped the county recover and it now has an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent. “That credential proves someone has the skills to do today’s jobs over and above a degree,” she said. “Use the program to stand apart.”

Todd said employer champions are critical to getting a CRC program running.

Brantley advised, “Get in front of every group you can. Use your Kiwanis Club.”

Reeves said that in Gaston County: “Our job applicant pool is getting stronger every year and our entry into the CRC program is one reason.”

In the afternoon session, Dr. Stephen Scott, president of Wake Technical Community College discussed the need to “take action” to establish business-education partnerships.

Krystal Anderson, director of Human Resources at Buhler Aeroglide, explained the company’s highly successful apprenticeship program.

Dr. Mike Walden, the well-known NC State Economist, discussed “The future of higher education in closing the skills gap.”