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Joining forces

Early results promising for businesses and education collaborating in NC

Published August 29, 2018
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GREENVILLE, NC – Education and business leaders advocate the need to break down the silos in which they have traditionally operated. After all, their common aim is a well-prepared workforce, so a unified effort clearly makes sense. But what does it really look like when talk turns into action and the silos disappear?

For a clear picture, look no further than the eastern region of North Carolina, where for the past eight years business and education leaders have emerged from their boardrooms and district offices, come together at the table, and tackled long-standing issues that had resulted in a repeated disconnect between what education was producing and what businesses needed in their employees.

The catalyst for this change has been STEM East, an offshoot of NCEast Alliance, an economic development group focused on shaping a transitioning work landscape. STEM East officials formed the Eastern North Carolina Employers and Superintendents Council with superintendents from the 11 school districts in the region and 11 key business and industry leaders whose companies rely on local school systems for their most important commodity – that well-prepared workforce.

“We want a workforce of inquisitive minds. We don’t want somebody to take the notebook that says, ‘Here’s how we’ve always done it.’ We want a workforce that can take us to the next level,” said Duke Energy Government and Community Relations Manager Millie Chalk. “And that to me is what STEM is providing us, and that is what our commitment to STEM education in North Carolina is really about – How do we build a better workforce? How do we grow our economy to be more productive and to do more and be more? That really comes from a grassroots effort in education.”

Businesses are eager to step up and support education when it clearly listens to and meets their needs. In eastern North Carolina, that is happening through ever-growing K-12 STEM programs that engage students, add relevance to their education, expose them to careers in the region, and cultivate soft skills needed in today’s workforce.

“This pedagogical approach to inquiry uses the idea of, ‘We are going to be developing you as a student who can work in a group and ask questions of each other and communicate with each other and make your own presentation about what it is that you’re learning,’” said STEM East Executive Director Bruce Middleton. “These are discrete skills that you can work on, and they are important for the workplace.”

STEM, STEAM, STREAM, and similar approaches are more about developing these essential skills that will be key to employability in the future if the recent past is an accurate barometer. According to a 2017 US Bureau of Labor Statistics report, “Employment in STEM occupations grew by 10.5 percent . . . between May 2009 and May 2015, compared with 5.2 percent net growth in non-STEM occupations.”

National jobs data is telling, but even more important to employers in the region are projections that their future employees will have the knowledge and skills necessary for open positions, work well together, and desire to stay in the area. Toward that end, major employers such as Duke Energy, Fleet Readiness Center East, Hyster-Yale, and regional health care providers have representatives on the STEM East advisory council. They share best practices, help fund STEM programs, put on summer camps, offer a mobile Fab Lab, mentor and train teachers, and offer internships and field trips to give educators and students a glimpse at the job opportunities in their own backyard.

Mark Meno, research and engineering group head at FRC East, where about 850 engineers are employed, said clearer communication has been helpful in breaking down the silos. “Education is only reacting to what they think they’re hearing from industry, and industry is not a clear communicator because we can’t speak educationese,” he said. “So, a lot of times we end up with this weird alignment issue that misses the mark slightly, and 10 years later we look at the output and we’re like, ‘Uh oh, that went wrong.’ . . . STEM East is addressing the issue. The conversation is happening at the table.”

Further proof of progress, says Craven County CTE Director Chris Bailey, is that the eastern region is a certified work-ready community based on jobs being profiled by ACT® WorkKeys® and students being rated on National Career Readiness Certificate® testing.

“What that does is it shows that there is solid alignment between secondary and postsecondary programs and industries to show that we’re trying to build a superhighway with multiple on- and off-ramps where students can get the careers they want,” Bailey said.

“Young learners benefit from the quality of Pitsco products. The straw rockets, tape measure racers, bridges, KaZoon Kites, as well as straw structure activities allow them to question, explore, wonder, create, and investigate while learning.”

– Rena Mincks, first-grade teacher, Jefferson Elementary, Pullam, Washington

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