North Carolina’s workers have been waiting for weeks to see how state legislators would address their needs, and now that the wait is over, they’re getting very little besides bad news. Not only does the compromise budget eliminate workplace health and safety inspectors at the NC Department of Labor, it also represents a missed opportunity for reinvesting in the state’s job training and workforce development system after years of cutbacks. This startling lack of investment is due largely to recent rounds of tax cuts that will reduce state revenues by as much as $2 billion in future years.
First, the good news: the budget strengthens state support for apprenticeship programs that allow participating workers to receive occupational job training from local community colleges while working for a participating employer. These programs provide workers with classroom instruction and on-the-job training on the way to earning an associates’ degree or a recognized occupational credential—and they have proven to be effective at ensuring workers get the training they need and securing job placement when they finish.
Specifically, the budget allocates $500,000 in state funding to support the administration and curriculum development of these programs and $110,000 in tuition waivers for students participating in apprenticeship programs. In effect, the tuition waivers reduce or eliminate the cost of enrollment for participating students.
But while the budget takes a step forward with apprenticeships, it takes two steps back in other areas of workforce development. After years of shortchanging community colleges and an enormously complex administrative overhaul of the state’s workforce development system, the budget does almost nothing to put these economically essential programs back on a path to success.
Notably, the spending plan includes no additional increases for Basic Skills Plus, an innovative “bridge” program that provides students with adult basic education alongside a specific occupational training curriculum for some of the lowest skill and most vulnerable workers in the economy.
Additionally, the budget includes a $26 million reduction in community college enrollment funds due to projected fall in the number of students attending. This represents an enormous missed opportunity—instead of cutting funds, budget writers could have taken that $26 million and reinvested it in programs like Basic Skills Plus or other job training programs. While the budget partially restores $12 million in general funding to community colleges not tied to workforce development, only half ($6 million) represents a permanent increase, and serious questions remain as to whether this truncated investment will be enough to support the growing needs of training preparing our state’s workforce.
This is especially crucial because the demand for credentials is expected to dramatically increase—more than 60 percent of jobs will require some kind of post-secondary degree by 2020, according to some estimates, yet today only a third of North Carolinians between the ages of 18 and 64 have attained this level of education. Fully 4 million prime-age workers in North Carolina lack a post-secondary degree.
So it is clear that the lack of investment in workforce development is leaving our workforce unprepared for the demands of the future.
Taken together, these budget proposals represent a step forward for apprenticeships, but two steps backwards for community college affordability and occupational training for the lowest-skilled workers.