The State of Working North Carolina, an annual report assessing how workers in the state are faring, shows what many North Carolina workers already know: increased educational attainment can improve lifetime earnings and provide some protection against the worst employment outcomes.
It is also true that an educated, highly skilled workforce is the key to strengthening the state’s economic recovery and fostering widespread prosperity. States with higher educational attainment not only have higher productivity but higher median wages. The increases in production of goods and services benefit the median worker in these states.
That is a welcome outcome in light of current national trends and what is happening in North Carolina. For the past thirty years, as the economy has become more productive, wages for the average worker have actually stagnated. In North Carolina, particularly in the most recent post-recession period, wages have actually fallen despite productivity growth.
We should all be focused on a better outcome. Jobs without good wages, increased productivity without wage growth are not the markers of a successful economy. States have a unique opportunity to pursue an economic development strategy that is focused on increasing the wages of the median worker in the state and thus improving their well-being.
Investments in education are the key place to start. Adequate investments, that meet the growing demand of an increased student population, the changing needs of that population, and the expanding knowledge base needed to succeed in a 21st century economy, must be the foundation. Spending on what we know works will be key: professional development for teachers and pay that attracts and supports quality educators, instructional supplies and supports for students in the form of nurses and counselors.
The goal must be strengthening the nationally recognized pipeline from early childhood to post-secondary and beyond. This means building on the successful partnerships already established between the Department of Public Instruction, UNC system and community colleges system. It means designing education and skills training for the labor market in particular so that workers can move in and out of the classroom and build their credentials along the way. North Carolina knows how to do this work, it just needs to state level commitment to move this agenda forward and do so with an eye to ensuring all workers benefit.