A plan for Raleigh

Amidst all the news surrounding the Wake County school board in recent months, you may have missed some less-publicized good news for our city. It was news that reminds us why Raleigh tops so many “best of” lists, and suggests a strategy to unify our community moving forward.

In September, the Brookings Institution released Education, Job Openings, and Unemployment in Metropolitan America. The report compared the education that employers demand with the education levels of workers in the nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas in the country. While 75% of the jobs in our area (the Raleigh-Cary metro area) require at least some college, 71% of our workforce meets that standard. That gives Raleigh the 5th smallest “education gap” in the country.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Raleigh has a solid education foundation with a nationally recognized community college and state university, robust private universities, and a historically strong public school system. These institutions have helped make Raleigh and the surrounding area a magnet for people and jobs. Put simply, people want to live, work, and raise their families here.

Unfortunately, our “well-educated workforce strategy” is no secret. It’s not like we have it locked up in some vault like the formula for Coca-Cola.

Others have taken notice. My work takes me to states across the country and one thing I see is a concerted effort by cities to boost their share of educated workers to compete with places like Raleigh. Nashville’s “Double the Numbers” and Louisville’s “55,000 Degrees” campaigns are examples of places that are embracing our formula. Their leaders understand that when you increase education levels, you boost your ability to attract, maintain and grow jobs. And it’s not just about more economic opportunity—it’s also about less poverty and crime, better schools, and better way of life.

While the Brookings’ report shows us in an enviable position today, if we sit still while other cities move forward, we will lose our edge. Because when people start using your recipe, you better improve yours or risk losing what distinguishes you.

It is time for Raleigh to clearly define its education and economic development needs—and demand greater coordination and accountability from its educational and political leadership to achieve them.
Here’s how we start:

First, make industry-recognized certificates a priority, not just two- and four-year degrees.

When most people think about college, they think about associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. Yet, certificates have significant value in the labor market. Examples from Wake Tech include computer programming; IT support; mobile game development; HVAC; nursing assistants; and global logistics. These are often shorter-term programs that give recipients a handhold in the economy and the knowledge employers want. They also lay an education foundation upon which individuals can build.

Second, commit to specific education goals for Raleigh.

Nashville and Louisville have it half right: it is important to know how many graduates are needed to drive our economy. But we also need to understand what kind of graduates. Which degrees and certificates are in demand? What skills and credentials do workers in our core industries need? What emerging sectors are we nurturing and what do they require? Committing to specific goals will force us as a community to hold our leaders—and ourselves—accountable for progress.

Third, create a plan with the mayor in the lead.

We should launch a Raleigh-Wake economic development cabinet and charge it with defining 1) specific goals for credentials and degrees over the next ten years and 2) the PreK-12 through college strategies that will get us there. The cabinet would include the leadership of Wake’s public schools, Wake Tech, and NC State; the presidents of Shaw, Meredith, Peace, and St. Augustine’s; the chair of the Wake board of commissioners; the presidents of the Raleigh Chamber and Research Triangle economic development partnership; and would be led by Raleigh’s mayor. While broad-based education, economic, and political membership is critical, this group requires a single leader to drive it. That’s the mayor’s job.

Education has been the cornerstone of Raleigh’s growth, and these actions recognize the role it will play in keeping Raleigh a vibrant and prosperous city — and a place of opportunity for all our people.

But this plan can do more. More than just keeping us atop the “best of” lists, this strategy would set goals to rally our community. The fact is we need an agenda that brings us together. In a city where student assignment dominates our education conversations, we need an agenda that recognizes our common goals for our children and our common destiny as a community.

The Brooking report reflects where we are, but the question is where we are going.

Let’s not sit on a lead. Let’s widen it.

J.B. Buxton

About J.B.
J.B. Buxton consults with state governments, foundations, and nonprofits on state education strategy. He is the former deputy state superintendent of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and a parent of three children in the Wake County public schools.