Should public universities and colleges in North Carolina be judged and funded primarily by how well they groom students for the job market?
Yes they should, Gov. Pat McCrory said this week in a radio interview, offering pointed criticism for college courses he says offer no path to jobs.
Citing the need for more engineers, technicians and mechanics, McCrory said he has instructed his staff to draft legislation that could alter the way the schools are funded, "not based on how many butts in seats, but how many of those butts can get jobs."
His comments drew fire from UNC system faculty and others who said higher education should teach more than job-specific skills.
But in interviews with business leaders and educators Wednesday, both themes kept emerging: In a job market struggling to recover, students with specific job skills -- whether from a community college or a four-year university -- stand the best chance of being hired. Yet it's also important to turn out students who can think critically and be prepared to adapt their skills in a world of rapid change.
Melissa McGuire, director and co-owner of Sherpa LLC, a Charlotte company that helps connect job seekers and employers, says the global economy needs some people with a liberal arts background, some with trade skills and some with advanced degrees.
"Liberal arts is a long-term way of looking at your future, instead of a short-term, get-a-job-immediately kind of way," she said. But today's job market makes specialization more important, she said. Companies that once hired several hundred per year and looked for candidates with varied education backgrounds, now might only have a handful of openings -- and they're looking for specialists.
"People get more specific in this economy," McGuire said. "And while the liberal arts is a wonderful education background to have, it isn't specific to the task needed. (Companies) are really going to hunker down for who exactly fits that role. In a game of inches like this, when the economy isn't as robust as it could be, you want to have an education that's specific to what the companies are hiring for."
Sometimes they're looking for college graduates with expertise in engineering, informational technology or computer programming. And other times, they need the type of skills only a community college training program can provide.
That's the case for Siemens AG, which operates Siemens Energy Inc.'s $350 million gas turbine in Charlotte. The company has hired close to 800 people in the last two years and has grown to be the second-largest employer in the Charlotte region's growing energy cluster, after Duke Energy.
Mark Pringle, director of operations for Siemens' Charlotte plant, said the company's partnerships with UNC Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College have helped the company hire well-trained personnel. UNCC engineering students fill many of Siemens' white-collar jobs, and CPCC students are trained specifically to fill many of Siemens' blue-collar roles.
Tony Zeiss, president of CPCC, sees working with companies as core to the school's mission.
"We're facing one of the greatest skills gaps in America's history," Zeiss said. "Our job is to reach out, out to ... companies, try to find candidates for jobs, and get them the skills they need. If we're not performing, frankly we shouldn't be funded."
The UNC system's Board of Governors is preparing to adopt a five-year strategy to target money to research fields that could stimulate North Carolina's economy. The plan will stress "performance funding" that provides incentives to campuses to improve productivity and graduation rates.
'Not as simple as it looks'
Many on the UNC faculty saw McCrory's remarks as a short-sighted view of the purpose of higher education.
"The reality is that nobody has a clear sense of what good jobs will require 10, 20 or 30 years down the road," sociology professor Andrew Perrin told The (Raleigh) News & Observer. "A strong, diverse and challenging liberal arts education like the one we provide at Chapel Hill is the best possible resource for dealing with the reality of uncertain futures and the changing economy, society and world."
CPCC's Zeiss said he agrees with McCrory that "higher education ought to lead to jobs. ... That's why we go to school." But measuring a school's performance is "not as simple as it looks." For instance, he said, a CPCC student might take longer to get his or her degree if they're a parent with children and can't be in school full time. That student might not show up in job measurements for years.
McCrory is not the first Republican governor to challenge public universities on how well they place graduates in jobs. Govs. Rick Scott of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas have argued for focusing public spending on majors that promise strong job prospects.
Scott has urged public universities to collect data on employment and salaries for various majors to share with prospective students. In 2011, he sparked controversy when he argued for shifting money from liberal arts and social sciences to math, science, technology and engineering.
"How many more jobs you think there (are) for anthropology in this state?" Scott told a group of business leaders. "You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people that can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't."
Some studies do show that some employers, even in an ailing economy, still value that liberal arts education that begets a broader set of skills.
A 2010 study by the Hart Research Associates, conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, found that during the economic downturn, most employers said their hiring would place a greater emphasis on four-year college graduates. Their most-desired qualities for graduates were "effective oral/written communication" and "critical thinking/analytical reasoning," according to the study.
And statistics suggest that degree holders fare better at landing jobs in North Carolina. The state's overall unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in December. That compares to 5.1 percent for those with a bachelor's degree and higher in 2011, according to recent statistics available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For those with some college or associate degree, the unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in the state.
Terri Helmlinger Ratcliff, executive director of N.C. State University's Industrial Extension Service, said a four-year university education is crucial for helping students develop work skills as well as the ability to adapt to change.
But just as critical, she says, is real work experience -- internships, temporary jobs in the field.
"This emerging trend of getting students out in the real world, a learn-and-do format ... employers are demanding it," said Ratcliff, whose department provides educational and technical assistance for small- and medium-sized manufacturers. "The community colleges and universities-- it's not one or the other. We really have to work together as a system."
A welder, after all, needs to know more than just how to weld, she said. "They need people who know how to weld and can transition those welding skills to whatever can come along...the capability to transition to whatever the new thing is." Observer Staff Writers Ann Doss Helms and Celeste Smith and the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.
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