Tom Campbell: Unemployment is an education problem

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 20, 2011

President Obama was in our state last week advocating support for his jobs plan, promising it would put almost $800 million into roads and transit systems while also providing $900 million to hire 13,000 teachers, firefighters and police officers in North Carolina.
The good news is the president and our politicians are finally focusing on the top priority for this country: jobs. The bad news is our leadership is so splintered and partisan we canít even have a sensible debate on solutions. Whether or not the presidentís plan is the answer, Obama said one thing that was true. The time for hand-wringing, moping, political pandering and doing nothing needs to end, and we need solutions that put people to work Ö and soon.
North Carolinaís published unemployment rate is above 10 percent, but the real number is more like 17 percent. The unemployed are tired of listening to politicians and think tanks pontificating about whose fault or whose responsibility it is. They want and deserve action.
Are we honestly saying that we are not smart enough or donít care enough about people to lick unemployment? A people who can put someone on the moon, cure horrible diseases and invent ingenious devices to improve daily life can surely find an acceptable solution to put people to work.
Education is a vital part of that solution but not in the way we have traditionally thought. For far too many years the message our students hear is that you must have a college education to get a good job and support your family. We have drunk this Kool-Aid even as we acknowledge that almost one-third of our students drop out of high school and less than a third have a college degree. While college is the solution for some, many others, perhaps even the majority, are being set up for failure. We should be looking at the jobs that are available and tailor our education system to those jobs instead of blindly insisting every child needs a college degree.
The National Skills Coalition recently reported that the South has plenty of workers for low-skill, low paying jobs, and there are more highly educated workers than there are jobs available, but 51 percent of all current jobs are middle-skill positions that require a high school degree and some higher education, not a college degree. There are employers today in North Carolina looking to fill jobs like heating and air conditioning technicians, dental hygienists, environmental engineering technicians, firefighters and medical technologists.
We can fix this problem, and pretty quickly, by reforming our education system and putting more emphasis and budget where it can quickly produce results. The solution involves greater cooperation between public schools and our 58 community colleges. North Carolina has one of the best community college systems in the nation and these schools are great at jobs training. Beginning in high school we can expand a track for those who want middle-skills educations and these workers can be job-ready very quickly.
We have faced many challenges and have a pretty good track record of resolving them but this lingering unemployment problem threatens both our economy and our stateís future. Everyone has a stake in the solution and we should resolve to put people to work. Our future depends on it.

Tom Campbell is the executive producer of the public affairs program ěNC Spin.î