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Creating a STEM Employment Pipeline in Eastern North Carolina Schools

Regional Matters
September 28, 2023
Aircraft mechanic inspecting and checking the technology of a jet engine in the hangar at the airport.

The communities of eastern North Carolina are working to develop and maintain a workforce that will support existing employers and attract additional STEM industries to the region. NC East Alliance, an economic development organization representing 29 counties, is partnering with 29 school districts and 14 community colleges to train students in the skills needed for possible jobs in those fields.

The Workforce Challenges Facing the Region

Eastern North Carolina is facing population and demographic challenges that are common in rural areas. Only seven of the region's 29 counties experienced population growth between 2010 and 2020, and all but one of those seven is located on the coast. Because these counties are also aging, school districts have also experienced the contraction: Of the 31 school districts in the NC East region, only six grew between 2000 and 2019. Some districts contracted by more than 50 percent over the 19-year period. In addition, each of the school districts with enrollment declines in the 19 years before the pandemic had additional enrollment declines between 2019 and 2022.

How do these communities make themselves attractive places to live and work? How do they recruit companies if they don't have a workforce? Future workers need to know there are good, well-paying, in-demand jobs in their communities. Companies need to know that the community has a workforce that is present, trained, and ready to work. But determining how to make this happen is hard work.

An Innovative School-Based Approach

Student education and training isn't a natural space for an economic development organization to operate. However, the NC East Alliance realized that it was going to be very difficult to retain and attract businesses to eastern North Carolina, especially the most rural areas, without first addressing STEM education. Positively, the region already has a solid industrial base in a variety of sectors, including aerospace, advanced manufacturing, value-added agriculture, and health and life sciences. Fortune 500 companies like Honeywell, Pfizer, and Bridgestone all have a significant presence. However, these well-established industries and firms have aging workforces, and some have struggled to find new workers with the necessary training. This shortage has hampered these companies' ability to expand, leaving groups like NC East concerned that they will eventually move out of the area. Despite these industries offering great opportunities with some salaries as high as $80,000, eastern North Carolina's "best and brightest often leave to go to the Triangle [Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill] or beyond and never come back," says NC East assistant director Patrick Miller. His hunch is that most of these students don't even know the opportunities exist.

To stem this outflow, NC East has partnered with 29 of the 31 eastern North Carolina school districts (13,000 teachers serving 28,000 students, plus 14 community colleges) to create the "Industry in Schools" strategy. The approach is to inform students about the available jobs in these industries and provide education pathways to attain those jobs. According to Miller, about 75 to 80 percent of these positions only require an industry-recognized credential or an associate degree, which students can earn in high school through the state's Career and College Promise dual enrollment program.

The centerpiece of this strategy is the Teacher Leadership Institutes, where K-12 teachers attend two-day workshops at local community colleges that have been designated as "hubs" for different STEM industries in the region. With a curriculum designed by content experts from those industries, the institutes give teachers the opportunity to learn about the jobs available in the region, including internships and apprenticeships, and the skills and education necessary to get hired. Teachers can also develop partnerships with those industries to bring a new technology or piece of equipment into the classroom, perhaps inspiring a middle school student to pursue a career in that field. The hope is that when that student is in high school, they can begin working with the local community college on a pathway leading to the required credential or degree.

Three such hubs were piloted this summer. Pitt Community College in Greenville partnered with the Eastern Carolina University Health System to host the health science program. James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville worked with Nourish the Future, a national initiative to foster science-based agricultural knowledge, to introduce smart agriculture to teachers. And Craven Community College in Havelock hosted the aviation science hub, where it partnered with Fleet Readiness Center East, which focuses on aircraft maintenance and repair for the Navy and Air Force and is the largest employer in North Carolina east of Interstate 95. The workshops were well attended, with most having 20 or more school districts represented. To incentivize participation, each teacher was paid $350 for the two-day workshop. NC East also paid for all meals, as well as lodging, if needed.

Funding Will Be Key to the Program's Growth

To raise funds for the pilot programs, NC East asked each school district to contribute $1 per K-12 student and each community college to contribute $2 per curriculum student. Twenty-nine school districts contributed, along with 10 of the 14 community colleges, generating about $200,000. Much of it went toward the teacher stipends.

While the pilot programs were successful, it will take more money to grow the program. Miller says that NC East would like to stand up programs in biopharma, advanced manufacturing, the "blue economy," which is anything related to the ocean, and green energy. In addition to expanding the number of industries represented in the hubs, they hope to have multiple community college hubs in the region per industry, making it more convenient for teachers to attend. NC East is also looking at setting up regional job fairs to include industries and companies beyond what is in a county or school district.

In June, NC East learned that it would receive a $1.6 million grant from the BelleJAR Foundation, an education-centered philanthropic organization based in San Francisco, to be spent over four years to help fund these additional opportunities. NC East believes that this initial grant will inspire confidence in other funders, but Miller acknowledges that money can be hard to find, and it has forced "us to go slower out of the gate than we wanted to."

Support from the state government will also be essential. Since the program kickoff meeting in January that was attended by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt and Chief Deputy Secretary of Commerce Jordan Whichard, NC East has asked the North Carolina legislature for support in its biannual budget. They hope to receive as much as $15 million. With that funding, Miller believes they can demonstrate enough positive results to secure recurring funding, which would allow the program to grow and confidently "move forward into the future."

Measuring Success and Lessons Learned (So Far)

In the long term, STEM East views the Industry in Schools initiative as at least an eight-to-10-year project. It will take that long for middle school students who are just now learning about the industries and opportunities to decide where they will live and work. In the short term, however, STEM East is taking steps to increase the chances those students will want to stay in eastern North Carolina. For example, STEM East is hosting technical assistance workshops for schools looking to earn STEM School of Distinction designation by the State Board of Education. Their goal is for the 29-county region to have the densest concentration of such schools in the state. "We feel like that would be a very positive calling card to help us recruit industries," says Miller.

When it comes to lessons learned, NC East has realized that funding and the lack of capacity are significant barriers to success. Addressing those issues will require continued determination and creativity. Miller also says that through their interaction with teachers at workshops, NC East has verified that there is limited awareness of job opportunities in the region. This realization, he says, has made the organization more determined than ever to build that awareness. His goal is that the teachers will go back to their districts and share this new knowledge with their colleagues and students. "Hopefully what we're trying to do here," he says, "to use a social media term, will go viral and will be successful."

Headshot of Patrick Miller.
Patrick Miller

Matthew Wells, senior economics writer at the Richmond Fed, and Patrick Miller, NC East assistant director


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"Once you get some funding, it gives confidence to other funders. ... But it is hard to find and you have to be patient."