myFutureNC Blog Series: A Q&A with Rachel Pleasants McDonnell, Associate Director, JFF

For just over a year now, the myFutureNC Commission has been working to create a targeted postsecondary attainment goal for North Carolina. The state attainment goal and the Commission’s accompanying recommendations will, undoubtedly, have positive effects on the student experience across the full education continuum. However, the overarching motivation behind this effort is the imperative to ensure all students in North Carolina are well-prepared to enter the workforce and earn a family-sustaining wage.

To learn more about how North Carolina can create stronger links between education offerings and workforce opportunities we sat down with Rachel Pleasants McDonnell, Associate Director at JFF, an organization working to promote the alignment and transformation of workforce and education systems to ensure access to economic advancement.


Q: What are the challenges states face in preparing their workforce for the jobs of the future?

One of the main challenges states face is the uncertainty of which jobs or skillsets the labor market will demand given rapid advances in technology and the changing nature of work. States must be prepared to adapt their talent development systems to both short-term and long-term changes.

States must also balance the need to respond to immediate workforce needs with a long-term strategy to ensure students are receiving the transferable life skills needed for success in any industry. States should not lose sight of the importance of skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and teamwork.

Unfortunately, in many states, ineffective and/or inconsistent communication between education, workforce development, and industry inhibits the implementation of coordinated, collaborative efforts to align the education-workforce pipeline.

Q: Policymakers, businesses, and education leaders often talk about aligning education with the demands of the workforce. What does that mean in practical terms?

In North Carolina that means considering which academic and training programs should be offered and who should offer which programs. States need to work with education and training providers to streamline the programs offered to ensure they are connected to labor demand.

States should consider how they can create incentives for high demand programs – both incentives to develop these programs and incentives to enroll in them. However, these targeted efforts must be approached in partnership with workforce and industry stakeholders to ensure they consider the long-term labor market needs of the community. There needs to be communication and understanding about the challenges the industry is facing and the ways in which the education system should and can partner with industry to develop solutions. Those solutions could include developing customized training programs, working together to update the curriculum, creating an apprenticeship, or working together to recruit new talent.

Q: How comfortable are education leaders and policymakers with making hard decisions about which degree programs are (and are not) economically viable for local communities? What implications do these decisions have on the equity of higher education opportunities within states?

Education leaders, and especially those at the community college level, must ask themselves whether their programmatic decision-making aligns with their commitment to promoting economic mobility and equitable advancement. Sometimes this means cutting a program because it doesn’t lead to sustainable wages or the jobs don’t exist in the community. Sometimes it means adding or incentivizing new programs that meet at emerging employment need.

We must also be willing to have honest conversations with students about the jobs that are available in the local community. When students enroll, they need opportunities to discuss their interests and priorities with counselors so they understand the feasibility of pursuing specific career fields given their community context. Fortunately, many colleges are beginning to improve the way they onboard students by driving conversations with labor market information, salary information, and information on graduates’ employment so students can make a data-informed decision.

Q: As myFutureNC works to build an education attainment plan for North Carolina, what advice would you give Commissioners who are hoping to improve the education system that produces a sustainable and employable workforce for years to come?

It is necessary to set a goal that is ambitious but attainable so people can believe in it and work towards it. The next step is to develop a clear framework that is adaptable enough to work in urban cities like Charlotte and in smaller towns like Mt. Olive.

Of course, that requires understanding those communities, their issues, and their challenges. Structures also need to be in place to allow for periodic reevaluation and modification of the plan in order to ensure that the strategies are still valid years from now.

It is also critical to pay attention to issues of equity. States must monitor whether their attainment efforts are having an adverse impact on equity and reevaluate their strategy if achievement gaps are increasing.

Q: Finally, what states do you think we should look to as far as best practices?

Wisconsin has a very strong technical college system committed to the idea that they must meet the needs of their employer partners. College leaders regularly re-evaluate their programs to ensure labor market alignment.

California is working to develop its future workforce by prioritizing each region’s top industries and align programs at the high school and post-secondary level with the in-demand jobs in that area.

In Louisiana, the state workforce commission developed a star-rating system to evaluate career fields based on demand and earning potential. Technical college programs that don’t meet the state’s minimum threshold are eligible for elimination. Education leaders must make a strong case as to why they should retain funding.

There are many other great models out there – these are just a few that come to mind.

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Author
Rachel Pleasants McDonnell
Associate Director, JFF