Several initiatives are in place to improve STEM and workforce skills in Eastern North Carolina.
Instead of just memorizing some algebraic function like the Pythagorean theorem, students at Contentnea-Savannah K-8 School are first presented with a real-life industrial or business problem, then they sit down and dissect how the Pythagorean theorem could help them solve the issue. The school is part of the Lenoir County Public Schools district, a system that received a $40,000 grant to continue a pilot STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) effort that focuses on preparing students for college and careers. “We are looking to retool our math curriculum in K-8 to lead students toward ultimately taking first- and second-level high school math classes while still in middle school,” says Steve Mazingo, superintendent of Lenoir County Public Schools. “Courses at Contentea-Savannah are more project-based instead of merely completing material in a book at the end of chapters. We want students to eventually go as far as they want in any STEM curriculum of their choice, and many of these students will.”
The Contentnea-Savannah program is part of a larger STEM initiative championed by education, industry and regional leaders to cultivate workforce talent in Eastern North Carolina. Local STEM programs are aimed at closing mid-level skill training gaps, starting in middle school and continuing through college and beyond. The key organizational backer is STEM East, which brings together employers and educators to align academic offerings to better fit career pathways suited to industry demand.
The STEM East network extends into five (soon six) Eastern North Carolina counties, providing funding for 30 STEM Learning Centers in area middle schools. Much like the program at Contentnea-Savannah, these STEM Centers provide career-relevant, employer-influenced coursework that teach students how to use math and science to solve problems. “Our primary goal is to meet the challenges of providing a STEM-trained workforce,” says Steve Hill, STEM East executive director. STEM is also a priority at the higher education level. East Carolina University is known for its engineering, computer science and life sciences programs, and the university recently introduced a transfer program for local community college students with associate of applied science degrees. The University of Mount Olive (formerly Mount Olive College) offers technology and health-based degrees and recently debuted a program allowing aspiring nurses to simultaneously earn their RN certification and B.S. degree. Community colleges in Nash, Lenoir, Pit, Wilson and Wayne counties are enhancing the technical training they provide through facility and equipment upgrades funded by Golden LEAF community assistance grants. Specific programs include advanced machining, mechatronics and welding.
Getting Workers Job-Ready
Another workforce cultivation effort in the region centers on aligning STEM curriculum with industry-standard Career Readiness Certificates (CRCs). A growing number of employers are using CRCs to determine whether applicants have the necessary literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills to succeed at jobs. For many firms, the credential is more valuable than a high school diploma and is an excellent predictor of success. More than 50,000 people in Eastern North Carolina possess a CRC (accounting for one of every four in North Carolina), and the region is working to increase that number through ASPIRE and WorkReady Community initiatives. ASPIRE (Assessing Skills for Performance in a Rebounding Economy) is made up of 13 area counties, 11 community colleges and three workforce development boards that are working to increase the number of job seekers who possess a Career Readiness Certificate. WorkReady Communities are cities or counties that meet criteria such having a large percentage of job seekers with CRCs, a majority of top 20 employers that state a preference for applicants with CRCs and public school systems with high graduation rates. “If a community reaches WorkReady status, companies will know that the workforce is ready for industry,” says Kathy Howard, vice president of client and workforce development for NCEast Alliance.
“A key asset of the WorkReady program is that qualified job seekers and industries can connect via an established database (www.ncworkready.org).” Howard says there are plenty of good jobs in the region to go around, and she wants top talent to remain in Eastern North Carolina. “The education system, business, industry, chambers of commerce, and colleges are committed to workforce development as a priority to attract and retain industry and strengthen our regional economy,” she says. “More than 150 area companies are on board with the WorkReady program, and five counties have already achieved certification. Many counties throughout North Carolina have reached out to us, asking how to establish a similar program in their region.”