IBM says it “can’t hire enough creatives.” Many other firms are looking to fill jobs. How can N.C. produce more workers to address a growing skills gap?

Strategies for workforce readiness were a key topic of discussion at the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce Conference on Education on Thursday.

Here are some examples.

One panel examined K-12 strategies for workforce readiness. Panelists were Dr. Elaine Franklin, director of the Kenan Fellows program for teacher leadership; Dr. Sam Houston, president and CEO, NC Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center; Mark Meno, Research and Engineering Group Head, Department of Navy Fleet Readiness Center East; and Steven Pearson, manager, corporate citizenship and corporate affairs, IBM.

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Houston, who moderated, said, “We spend too much time in America worrying about students being successful in school and should be more concerned with their success after school,” establishing the theme of the discussion.

Franklin described the Kenan program, founded 17 years ago, which selects teachers who aspire to leadership, although not necessarily administrative positions. The fellows, who must pass a competitive application process, intern three to five weeks with a business, industry or research setting and then receive 80 hours of coaching.

“The internships are our secret sauce,” Franklin said. “There is almost a cultural divide between education and business.” She said the program creates business-teacher relationships that are often sustained after the program. “It helps teachers understand what other careers look like,” she said. “How can they help students understand that if they don’t understand it themselves?”

She added that in addition to the Kenan teaching fellows program, “We have STEM East and STEM West. They help businesses develop partnerships with schools.”

Leadership in action

Mark Meno pointed out that the Department of the Navy facility at Cherry Point is the largest employer in two NC counties. He said their efforts to support education are “A bit selfish. We’re trying to grow our own workforce.” So they provide engineers and other experts to go into classrooms and “The investment is starting to pay off,” he said. “We’re hiring kids we touched in the sixth grade, there are bodies in the pipeline and we’re off and running.”

IBM’s Steven Pearson discussed how IBM creates joint partnerships between K-12 education, colleges and industry. He noted that as important as STEM education is, IBM is also interested in creative talent. “Right now we can’t hire enough creatives,” he said. He noted IBM just launched an accelerator program at Wake Tech and Durham Tech. He also mentioned IBM’s free Watson teacher advisor portal.

Several panelists said so-called “soft skills” such as learning to cooperate, collaborate, and work well in teams. Houston said, “They’re not soft skills, they’re essential.”