Proven workforce strategies for greater prosperity in N.C.

The fact that North Carolina’s unemployment rate seems to be moving in the right direction is good news, with the current three-month average rate lower than it has been in some time.

But this improvement ironically puts North Carolina beyond the eligibility threshold for receiving assistance from the federal Extended Benefits program. As a result, thousands of unemployed North Carolinians received their last unemployment check during the week of May 7.

It is tempting to use this development to debate the merits of the unemployment insurance system, how long benefits should last and whether policymakers, employers or employees should bear the greatest responsibility for creating reemployment opportunities. But that would take a lot of time and accomplish little. So in the interest of furthering economic progress, let’s look at evidence-based employment strategies that policymakers and employers from both sides of the aisle can implement or expand in North Carolina and beyond.

Career academies

North Carolina is home to hundreds of career academies. Usually located within larger high schools, the academies are typically small, career-focused schools that emphasize both academics and specific job skills for opportunities in the surrounding areas. Students are able to gain real-world experience stemming from partnerships that the academies develop with employers. Rigorous research by MDRC shows substantial and lasting impacts of career academies on students’ future employment, particularly with regard to income. A brief co-authored by Ron Haskins, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, highlights one study that tracked male career academy participants for eight years following graduation and found they earned nearly $30,000 more over the eight years than their peers who graduated from traditional high schools. It’s not the cure-all for unemployment, and there needs to be a clear standard for what constitutes a career academy, but policymakers would do well to consider further investments in this skills development-based approach to employment.

Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP)

The MEP is a national network that works with small- and mid-sized manufacturers, helping them create and retain sustainable jobs while at the same time increasing productivity and efficiency and reducing costs. Research shows that North Carolina’s MEP site, based at N.C. State, has helped create $2.28 billion in economic value for the state since 2000. With such a high rate of return on investment, North Carolina can only benefit from legislators and employers taking a closer look at expanding this strategy.

Sectoral Training and Employment is an approach to job creation and sustainability that matches key industries with low-income individuals in the surrounding area who are unemployed or underemployed. This strategy requires direct interaction and involvement with the industry side of workforce development. It’s an area in which North Carolina has substantial room for growth; initiatives like the Welfare Reform Liaison Project in Greensboro have made a strong start.

Early childhood education

With strong evidence both of the benefits of early childhood education and how a lack of child care is a barrier to employment, young children must be a consideration when discussing workforce development and poverty reduction. Providing high-quality early childhood education is critical for preparing a capable, employable labor force. North Carolina is recognized nationally and internationally for its innovation, investment, and success in early childhood education. Such investments support the current workforce and prepare future members of the workforce. Abandoning that commitment would have negative impacts on North Carolinians for generations to come.

Ongoing budget pressures at all levels of government only intensify the importance of implementing and sustaining proven job-training programs. Importantly, many of these programs target disadvantaged workers who often experience the most severe negative impacts of unemployment. The issue is not only about creating jobs and linking them to available workers now; it’s also about how we can prepare North Carolina’s workers for new and emerging job opportunities.

On Thursday at the North Carolina General Assembly, national, state and local experts will address these and other approaches to sustainable employment at the 2012 NC Family Impact Seminar, titled “Working Toward Greater Prosperity in North Carolina: Effective Employment Strategies.” The timing could not be better for this crucial conversation.

Jenni Owen is the director of policy initiatives at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, which is convening the NC Family Impact Seminar, and director of the NC Family Impact Seminars. This commentary was originally published in The Durham Herald-Sun.