Catrina is 31 years old, a single mom with a 2-year-old son, and a dream: “I want my son to have it easier than I did. I want a house. I want a driveway.”

Coming out of high school, she decided to become a hair dresser. She liked the work and it paid the bills. Her son changed her perspective, and changed the math.

Catrina 2.0 has her eyes on a new prize. So she’s put together a patchwork of child care for her son. She’s cobbling shifts cutting hair around classes toward a cybersecurity degree. All for a chance at a more stable life for her and her son.

A lot more North Carolinians these days are facing the challenge of how to move up economically. According to the Carolina Population Center, there are 1,363,130 North Carolinians between the ages of 25 and 54, what experts called the “prime working age,” with a high school degree or less. The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce tells us that 74% of people with Catrina’s education background don’t have a “good job” — one paying more than $35,000 a year.

A report earlier this year by the My Future NC Commission estimates that two-thirds of jobs created in our state by 2030 will require some education beyond high school, and that if we do nothing, we’ll fall 400,000 jobs short.

It gets trickier. In 2016, the Institute for Emerging Issues “Disruption Index” estimated that as many as 25% of today’s jobs would disappear due to automation within the next couple decades. The majority of disappearing jobs are those requiring the least education.

Making the move to a family-sustaining job is all-consuming for Catrina, but policymakers aren’t showing the same sense of urgency.

To address this challenge, we’ll need a big coalition and a lot of different ideas.

Adult workers are going to need real opportunities for reinvention. That will mean a willingness to try new things, reliable information about growing job sectors, easier access to education and training, and a clear path back into new careers. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that today’s workers will have an average of 13 different jobs by the age of 40.

Schools at every level must get better at delivering education and training in ways that are convenient for students. A recent article by Ken Ender, a professor of practice at the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Support at N.C. State, proposed a new “Communiversity” model for delivering education at times and locations convenient to working adults, both online and in person. That will take much more seamless integration between universities, community colleges and other training programs and a focus not just on bachelor’s and associate’s degrees, but on other credentials and certificates.

Employers must do more to promote from within. Amazon announced recently a $700 million investment to retrain 100,000 of its workers for jobs of the future. More businesses need to recognize that advancing workers from within decreases recruitment costs and increases employee morale. Promoting from within means making it easy for existing employees to enroll in formal degree programs, and committing to retrain employees in positions that are declining so they can be ready for those that are growing — depending on where you are that could mean things like advanced manufacturing, nursing — or cybersecurity.

Communities must address the life-got-in-the-way challenges that hold back talent: For Catrina, it’s child care. For others, parental care, transportation challenges or unstable health care. Almost everyone will need a financial plan.

All of this works best when communities organize different supports, making sure whole systems of care are focused on shared goals.

Catrina is tenacious, talented and focused on a career field with lots of promise. If we are going to meet our shared obligation to open real opportunity for all of North Carolina’s citizens, we need to answer a tough question: How do we make her path easier, so that many more will follow?

Make sure you never miss our editorials, letters to the editor and columnists. We’ll deliver the News & Record's Opinion page straight to your inbox.

Leslie Boney is director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University. The Emerging Issues Forum, “ReCONNECT to Economic Opportunity,” will be held Oct. 15 in Charlotte. Register at emergingissues.org.

Load comments