Investing in Education to Improve the Workforce

From Policy & Progress, Fall 2012
November 2012
By Matt Ellinwood

There are few better investments North Carolina can make to boost job creation than strengthening its public education system.

Good public schools pay off now because businesses know employees will be happier and more productive if they’re not worried about the quality of education their children are receiving. And good schools will pay off later because quality education is the key input for ensuring that North Carolina has a productive and well-prepared workforce in the future.

Creating such a workforce will be essential for economic growth. The industries that are experiencing the most growth and are projected to account for the majority of jobs in the future demand highly skilled workers. These jobs will require not only academic knowledge but also advanced critical-thinking skills and the ability to adapt in rapidly changing work environments.

A more educated workforce is more adaptable, can learn new skills and tasks more easily, is more autonomous and needs less supervision, and can use a wider range of new and emerging technologies—all features that employers and businesses look for.


Building Skills that Work

Creating a workforce that is flexible and excels at critical thinking necessitates improving both cognitive and noncognitive abilities. Cognitive abilities are what most education policy focuses on: the ability to score well on tests, what most of us would call “book smarts.”

But noncognitive abilities are just as necessary for people to find success in life and at work. These include motivation, sociability, the ability to work with others, attention, self-control, self-esteem, and the ability to make informed choices that affect health.

Research by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman shows that the labor market is increasingly oriented toward valuing these noncognitive abilities as well as higher-order cognitive abilities, like the ability to find creative solutions to new challenges. Educational interventions—especially for at-risk children and those from low-income households—must focus on improving students’ cognitive and noncognitive abilities.


How We Make It Happen

First, North Carolina needs to increase access to early education, which is a compelling and thoroughly evaluated investment. The overwhelming body of evidence on early education shows that investing in education in the years when the brain is developing most rapidly, particularly before third grade, improves student achievement, college attendance, earnings, employment, and health, and it decreases criminal activity and participation in risky activities.

Ability gaps between students open at an early age, often before schooling begins, and persist into adulthood. The best way to ensure that these gaps never develop and therefore improve the overall quality and productivity of the workforce is to intervene early with high-quality early education programs such as prekindergarten. Heckman’s research shows that prekindergarten improves noncognitive skills and that these skills carry over into adulthood and into the workforce.

Another area of agreement in education policy is that the most important input that determines whether a child will be successful is the quality of teaching she receives. Studies show policies that attract higher-quality teachers lead to improved standardized test scores, increases in the graduation rate, and improved noncognitive abilities—all of which lead to a more prepared workforce.

Policies designed to improve the quality of teachers include increased professional development, higher salaries, incentives for teaching in areas where teachers are harder to attract, incentives for national board certification, and incentives for mastery of a given subject area.

And North Carolina needs to increase its investments in its disadvantaged students. While the majority of students are served well by our educational system, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English language learners are at an increased risk of being failed by it. The economic and workforce productivity returns are therefore highest for investments in these groups of children.

In the past 30 years, a greater percentage of children are attending and graduating college, but a greater percentage are also dropping out of secondary school and creating a growing underclass. The best and most efficient way to improve North Carolina’s workforce is by focusing reforms and programs on disadvantaged students early in their lives.

One other relationship between education and the workforce is clear: there is no way to improve the workforce by disinvesting in education. Unfortunately, this is the path North Carolina’s leaders have chosen in recent years. Indiscriminate spending is not the answer, but well-targeted investments in education are desperately needed to ensure that North Carolina’s workforce is prepared for the increasingly high-skilled jobs of today and tomorrow.

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