Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthening the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC held enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence. The new superintendent of Vance County Schools, Dr. Anthony Jackson, participated in those discussions. Jackson was featured last week in WUNC’s series on rural schools, Perils and Promise. In his interview with Leoneda Inge, Jackson spoke about how his personal experiences influence how he sees his students:
Coming from DC as an individual, growing up in what I considered somewhat of a desperate situation, in what people call the projects of Washington, D.C., I’ve learned that it’s truly about helping children close what we call the ‘opportunity gap.’ And having them understand that because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Today, the opportunity gap in Vance—and surrounding counties—is stark. Parts of Granville and Franklin counties have become bedroom communities for the Research Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—part of the halo of one of the fastest growing metros in the U.S. The labor markets of the areas blend together, potentially creating more diverse job opportunities for residents. But Vance and Warren counties, while not impossibly far for determined commuters, retain their largely rural character. After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances of upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 18 percent of adults in Vance County and 20 percent in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher.
In Vance County Schools, 91 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and the 2013 graduation rate was 65 percent, much lower than the state average of 83 percent. In parts of the region, many affluent families have enrolled their children in private schools. In this environment, young people growing up in low-income families aren’t getting much positive reinforcement from the community. “Being poor doesn’t relegate you to being unsuccessful,” says Carolyn Paylor, executive director of Franklin-Granville-Vance Smart Start. Young people in the community need to know that their future matters and that the community wants them to succeed.
“Too many people seem paralyzed by past failures—we aren’t spending enough time lifting up current success stories,” says Dr. Jackson. In his view, this mindset is the first thing that needs to change. So, along with other leaders in the region, the superintendent is committed to changing the conversation about student success. “We are waiting for some magic bullet program, but it’s really about building the capacity of our parents, about teaching them how to advocate for their kids to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences,” he says. Since he started as superintendent, he looks around and sees students, parents, and teachers who are trying in spite of difficult circumstances—and he sees many who are succeeding. He wants to make sure all students receive the support they need, even those who don’t match what people imagine as a “typical” successful student.
To begin that shift toward more collective concern for community well-being and expanded aspirations, strategic improvements in the education-to-career continuum are being made. Several new programs to provide students with additional pathways to career success are underway: two career academies, one focused on medicine and another on fire and public safety, as well as an alternative high school for students who were not successful at the county’s other high schools. Vance-Granville Community College (VGCC) has partnered with the local school systems to establish early-college programs in each of the four counties. Students enroll at the start of high school and graduate with a two-year degree, or college credit, within five years. The community college also links to nearby four-year institutions to ensure students have an array of degree options and clear academic pathways; through a partnership with North Carolina Central University, students can complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice on the VGCC campus.
These pockets of innovation and excellence show what is possible for the future. But the region still needs strong collaborative leadership to organize around a vision for the future economy. Local leaders must continue their work to change the conversation about poverty and who is likely to succeed. “We can’t allow poverty to be an excuse for not providing opportunity,” says Dr. Jackson. Changing that mentality will take inclusive planning strategies so that the region’s people share ownership of a vision for educational and economic success.
A recent update to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Book shows that 1.3 million youth ages 16-19 in the U.S. were disconnected from both work and school in 2014. That’s a national disconnection rate of 7 percent. In all Southern states except Virginia, the rate is at the national average or higher:
What’s a NEET, you ask? That’s the UK acronym for young people that are Not in Education, Employment or Training. Wherever you are, a delay in high school graduation, postsecondary study, and employment can have life-long consequences, so national and local governments are investing in a variety of programs to get these youth on track. In the UK, that means apprenticeship grants and wage incentives for businesses that employ young people; sector-based work academies that offer training, work experience, and a guaranteed job interview; funding for local initiatives that support education; and training for these young people. In the South, we see some similar efforts, like the South Carolina Technical College System’s Apprenticeship Carolina initiative; All In Brownsville that is, among other things, increasing the college application rate of the Texas town’s high schoolers; and local partnerships like Made in Durham that are linking educators and employers to help young people stay connected.
But efforts like these are operating in a South that still doesn’t have enough good jobs. Poor labor market opportunities are hitting our young people—particularly our young people of color—the hardest: 27 percent of black 20- to 24-year-olds, and 14 percent of white 20- to 24-year-olds, are unemployed—twice the levels for workers 25 and older. And even if employed, those without education struggle to get ahead: in the South, the median income of high school graduates is $26,500; for people with some college, $32,299; and for four-year graduates, $48,317. All the more reason that we need to build an Infrastructure of Opportunity—the systems that provide pathways to opportunity and re-connection efforts—to ensure access to education, employment, and training for all the young folks on that map.
A low-income person in Houston is more likely to reach the top-20 percent of earners than in any other large Southern city. The Houston region has a diverse and growing economy, which looks less like the past—oil and its cousins—and more like the future’s knowledge-based industries. The region’s affordable housing and job growth drives a surging population, with a soon-to-be majority Latino population, and an aging, whiter workforce. However, Houston might soon face a collision between inequity, economic prosperity, and a fervent belief in small government. Latino and African-American young people, who will fill the jobs vacated by retiring whites, are far behind on every step between education and career. Those students depend on systems of public education that are dispersed and often strapped for resources.
“If Houston’s African-American and Latino young people are unable to succeed,” says Stephen Klineberg, director of the Kinder Institute at Rice University, “it is impossible to envision a prosperous future for the city as a whole.”
While oil still plays a critical economic role in the labor market those young people enter, with one in two jobs affected by energy prices, the city also has become a national leader in applied technology, construction, engineering, and health, according to an analysis by the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston’s Chamber of Commerce. That same analysis shows that non-energy related jobs have made up almost three in four new jobs over the last 30 years. To increase upward economic mobility, Houston will have to connect people to the growth industries and improve the quality of existing jobs.
One key to that connection is reimagining the role between employers and their communities. Tish Young McCutcheon, vice president of organizational planning and public affairs at United Way of Greenville County, is thinking about how to help employers make the shift from charitable donation to conscientious collaboration:
Though much larger than Greenville, Houston’s diverse employer base will have to make a similar shift. Some local partnerships are trying to help them do just that.
The Greater Houston Partnership, working with a wide range of partners, has launched UpSkill Houston, focused on closing the skills gap in key industries such as construction, health care, and manufacturing. UpSkill is focused on four primary areas: increasing awareness of middle-skills jobs, improving the pool of applicants for those jobs, coordinating the education, business, and social services sectors, and collecting better data on talent and job demand. The timing is right: between 2012 and 2017, due to an aging workforce and growing economy, Houston expects about 75,000 annual openings for middle-skill jobs. For leaders in the business community, filling those jobs will be critical to continued economic development. For leaders of training and community organizations, those jobs represent opportunities to help Houston’s low-income people find family-supporting careers. Organizers are confident that the initiative can begin to reframe success, making clear to young people and their families the value of technical skills and credentials and bringing together leaders within business, government, education, and the community. Houston’s business community is influential in setting public policy, and UpSkill has helped business leaders see the importance of the success of the education and training system.
Houston has lessons to teach the rest of the South—and the nation. In partnerships, Houston has brought many sectors to bear on the issues of economic mobility. Through applied research, the universities are playing an important role in shaping the community agenda. Through the Greater Houston Partnership and UpSkill Houston, the business community is helping to define the skills needed for tomorrow’s jobs. Various philanthropies, including the Houston Endowment and the United Way of Greater Houston, are investing funds in education and vigorously evaluating what works and what does not. Houston’s economic mobility in the middle of demographic shifts cannot be easily explained by any of these factors, but they’re worth watching.
This post is adapted from a profile written by Max Rose. You can read the full profile and to learn more about how Houston is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people here.
We’ve got some STEMpathy if you’re kind of over stories about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs, and the education and training required to get them. But there’s a good reason for all (or at least most) of those stories: employment in STEM occupations tends to be higher-wage and higher-growth than other occupations. With startlingly low economic mobility for young people in the South, STEM jobs could provide new pathways into stable careers.
In many Southern metros, STEM employment makes up a significant portion of the workforce. According to Bloomberg Business, in Austin, Huntsville, Raleigh, Durham, the figure is at least 10 percent:
Source: Bloomberg Business
These jobs typically pay better than many occupations, and they are more likely to have the characteristics that allow for economic security and wealth building, like paid sick and family leave, health insurance, and retirement accounts. The gap between median pay in STEM occupations and non-STEM occupations is substantial in many Southern metros:
Source: Bloomberg Business
The prevalence of these jobs in certain areas is not based just on luck; they are areas that have seen sustained investment in innovation and education over time. From Bloomberg Business descriptions of Huntsville and Durham:
Like many high-tech locales, Huntsville owes its 21st century economy to an initial burst of funding for government research. It was a town of 16,000 residents working in cotton mills and on watercress farms when, in 1950, the U.S. Army relocated a team of rocket scientists to Redstone Arsenal, a local installation that produced chemical munitions during World War II. In the decades that followed, NASA designed, assembled, and tested the rockets that put the first men on the moon. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and dozens of lesser-known aerospace and defense companies have swarmed to Huntsville.
Durham, N.C., has a STEM labor force that’s 13.9 percent of all workers. Its biotech economy started with a sprawling research park that began to grow around the same time that Huntsville’s high-tech transformation was getting started.
The Bloomberg author notes that these jobs pay good salaries and those salaries support other draws—like good public schools, restaurants, and arts and entertainment that make the communities appealing to potential employers and potential workers.
Job growth doesn’t happen automatically, and it’s happening less and less through traditional industrial recruitment. STEM jobs are growing in the places where there’s been investment in the services, amenities, and institutions that support those sectors, and particularly in places with a highly educated workforce or the ability to attract one.
These occupations are typically high-skill and require targeted training and education, but the majority are going to populations that are the most likely to connect with high-wage work anyway: white men. Women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM fields. Women make up less than a third of all STEM employment in every Southern state:
Source: IWPR’s Status of Women in the States
Southern cities that are seeking to take advantage of STEM job growth must make sure that the pathways into those jobs are strong and equitable. We have to consider what barriers, both real and perceived, are preventing women and people of color from pursuing those careers in greater numbers.
As the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research found, women are significantly less likely than men to get degrees in STEM fields, and the proportion of women receiving associate’s degrees in STEM fields decreased between 2001 and 2009:
Though these data show a significant gender gap, community colleges are an important part of the pathway to STEM careers for both women and men, as detailed in an article this week by Lane Florsheim in Marie Claire magazine. More than half of people who receive bachelor’s degrees or higher in a STEM field completed some of their coursework at a community college, including 55 percent of women (63 percent of women with young children) and 44 percent of men.
Florsheim cites research that suggests community colleges are often more accessible and inviting to women interested in these fields:
… a recent study by two Iowa State University researchers found that women at community colleges reported a friendlier atmosphere in STEM-related classes than at four-year colleges. “It is just such a global community,” one student said of her community college experience. The researchers found that similarity in backgrounds and lifestyles made women feel more comfortable stepping into leadership roles in activities and assignments. Strong advising and support from faculty also marked a major difference. Since so many students transfer out, they often work closely with guidance counselors to develop transfer plans. “The two-year plan keeps me focused, and saved me with financial aid,” another woman said.
That welcoming atmosphere, where women and people of color are encouraged and expected to thrive instead of being seen as unusual, must be sustained at community colleges and created at other educational institutions. It hasn’t always been so unusual: computer programming was once thought of as women’s work, but it became overwhelmingly male starting in the mid-1980s as stereotypes about gender and computer science shifted:
Stereotyped messages about who “belongs” in a field matter to young people who are trying to envision themselves in careers.
Holding that vision is difficult to do while women in corporate leadership, especially tech corporate leadership, are few and far between. Only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs (women make up 15 percent of C-level executives and 17 percent of board members, even though research shows that boards with women tend to outperform board without women). A TechCrunch analysis of 84 “unicorn” companies, or U.S. software or internet-oriented companies that are backed by venture capital and valued at more than $1 billion, found that only two CEOs are women, 30 percent have no women in senior leadership, and approximately 70 percent do not have women on their boards. And a Fortune analysis of 191 major U.S. venture capital firms—the crucial backers of tech innovation—found that only 5.6 percent of decision-makers and 10 percent of all investment professionals were women.
The power of these stereotypes is seen in a study of academia that found fields that prioritize brilliance and raw talent tend to have lots of white men in them, while fields that emphasize the importance of hard work tend to have larger percentages of women and people of color. Unconscious bias influences who we think of as brilliant and talented—if you don’t look like the typical applicant, then the employer may not be as able to see your unique talent. Women make up 20 percent or less of PhDs in physics, engineering, and computer science; it’s understandable that young women may not see STEM fields as welcoming for either education or employment.
For the Southern economy to thrive, our workforce needs the skills to compete in the global economy and emerging fields—and we need those skills be to accessible to a broad range of workers, including women and people of color. STEM skills will often be highly technical and specialized, requiring both postsecondary training and job-based experience. Developing equitable education and hiring systems can help us shift patterns of economic mobility and ensure that more Southerners can connect to living-wage careers.
Over the weekend, The News & Observerran an op-ed by MDC president David Dodson about efforts to improve economic mobility for low-income young people in North Carolina:
It’s starting to happen in Durham. Just ask Zavier Eure.
Eure was in the first graduating class last spring from the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability at Southern High School and spent the summer as an intern at the Durham manufacturing plant of Biogen, a global biotechnology company. There, Eure was a temporary member of Biogen’s global project engineering team tasked with creating a process flow diagram depicting each step in the drug purification process.
“I never took an engineering class, and I never had any interest in the field,” said Eure, an aspiring veterinarian. “But now I’m thinking I can put my engineering experience to good use in a company that works with robotic prosthetics for animals.”
He was one of the first Durham students to participate in a new career internship program launched by Biogen with Made in Durham, a nonprofit created and incubated at MDC, and its partners on the Business Engagement Team of the Durham YouthWork Summer Internship Program. These partners include Durham Public Schools, Durham Technical Community College and Youth Employed and Succeeding.
Made in Durham is an example of what it means to start building an infrastructure of opportunity. It’s a public-private partnership that strives to ensure all Durham youth and young adults complete a post-secondary credential and begin a rewarding career by the age of 25. This summer, Made in Durham matched 72 student interns with 21 local employers in the high-growth fields of health and life sciences, education, banking and construction. Overall, Made in Durham and the YouthWork Business Engagement Team recruited, trained, placed and evaluated 481 youth interns this summer. And they’re just getting started.
Economic mobility – the idea that your success is not dependent on your situation at birth – is core to our vision of America. While it’s always been a myth (particularly for women and people of color), we know ways to make mobility more realistic. By investing in the infrastructure of opportunity, we can get closer to making sure that young people like Zavier Eure have the chance to thrive.