As rumors continue to swirl on Jones Street about a deal reached Friday night on the FY2015-2017 budget (details to be released Monday), investments in North Carolina’s community colleges and workforce development programs remain an area of critical concern. These programs are essential for improving the skills and competitiveness of our labor force and ensuring that low-income workers have accesses to the training resources they need to achieve long-term upward mobility in their careers and lifetime earnings.
Job training and basic adult education are critical investments that give workers—especially those at the bottom of the income scale—the tools they need to enter higher-wage occupations. For many, these programs can mean the difference between a life trapped in poverty-wage jobs and a life with opportunities to climb the career ladder and enter the middle class. Career pathway programs in particular create avenues for workers to build occupation-specific skills consecutively over the course of a career, creating stepping stones for long-term advancement within that occupation.
As a result, these programs provide a powerful policy-level antidote to income inequality and wage stagnation. As the recent State of Working North Carolina report points out, wages remained largely flat in decade prior to Great Recession and then experienced significant decline in years since the recession. This is largely the result of policies that allowed corporate executives and investors to earn the lion’s share of increased productivity achieved by technological advancements.
Building skills through job training and workforce development is an important tool for returning these productivity gains to workers—both by strengthening the ability of individual workers to bargain for better wages and by improving the overall recognized skills of the state’s workforce, a key competitive advantage that will create more quality jobs in North Carolina.
Given this reality, all eyes are on the emerging final budget deal to see how legislators treat these important programs. Thus far in the budget debate, the Senate has cut more funding for these investments than the House in its proposal. In the House proposal passed earlier this summer, the Community College System received a $52 million cut compared to the $59 million cut served up by the Senate. Similarly, the House provides $15 in new money for instructional equipment at the community colleges, while the Senate provides just $5 million. And while the House provides $1.9 million for job training in economically struggling areas, the Senate does not, instead opting to invest $1.5 million to put community college “coaches” in high schools with the goal of helping high school students transition into vocational training programs upon graduation.