Linking Education and Workforce Development in Lenoir County

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Like many rural North Carolina counties, Lenoir County has both a shortage of employers able to pay middle-class wages and a shortage of employees eligible for such jobs. To help meet workforce development goals, inform the county’s efforts to retain and attract employers, and improve its workforce supply, I was awarded a CCP small grant to begin the first steps in designing a longitudinal data tracking system that examines the post-secondary and labor market outcomes of Lenoir County students. The system will aid policymaking in a variety of areas by enabling county leaders to assess how its local schools and regional post-secondary institutions are preparing its local residents for high-skill jobs.

Though currently available, the data tends to be largely administrative and is not linked. For example, while local school districts have the data systems to examine student progress over time, they do not have access to data from post-secondary institutions, so staff cannot examine the relationship between high school course taking and post secondary enrollment, to name just one example. The absence of data systems to track school improvement efforts makes it difficult for school leaders to meet performance goals. Ultimately, I hope to raise awareness among the county’s policymakers and technical staff about the costs and benefits of linking administrative data housed in different entities, an undertaking that the county may want to continue once project activities cease.

On Tuesday, October 26, Lenoir County workforce development and education leaders came together for roughly two hours to collectively identify goals to guide my efforts. We identified four goals for education and workforce development:

  1. All students will be college and career-ready when they graduate from high school
  2. Students will behave appropriately and develop soft skills to succeed in school, college, and the workplace
  3. The education system will produce students with skills that match employers’ hiring needs
  4. Lenoir County will increase the number of living-wage jobs

We discussed four main objectives:

  1. Prepare students for STEM course taking and job opportunities in both STEM and non-STEM jobs
  2. Improve grade level proficiency in middle and high school, and graduate students prepared to do college-level course work
  3. Improve, identify and assist students with disciplinary problems
  4. Improve the supply of job opportunities

Based on these goals and objectives, we have formulated the following research questions for the project, which will focus on the supply of a college and career-ready workforce:

  1. What is the current status of the STEM course taking pipeline in middle school, high school, and college? Do math and science course taking, grades and test scores predict grade-retention, dropping out of high school or college, enrolling and attending college, remedial coursework in college, attaining a postsecondary degree, and wages?
  2. Do disciplinary problems affect student success through high school graduation, college enrollment and persistence, and employment?
  3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Lenoir County workforce? Are the best and brightest leaving Lenoir County or do they remain in the county upon completing their education?

The input received on Tuesday was essential to guiding this project. I look forward to the continued interest and support from Lenoir County leaders as we move forward with our research efforts.

Doug Lauen is an assistant professor in the UNC Department of Public Policy and CCP small grant recipient working in Lenoir County.

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