Even as an often-cynical reporter, I was impressed by the collaboration among some of the state’s top education and business leaders at a recent meeting of Gov. Pat McCrory’s Education Cabinet.

The panel includes representatives from K-12 public schools, the community college and university systems, the business community, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina and NC Works, a partnership that aims to connect workers with jobs.

It’s not that often that this many smart people sit around the same table, and all play a huge role in educating children and preparing the workforce.

A top initiative of the cabinet is to meet the goal of 67 percent of the working population educated or trained beyond high school by 2025 to help fill the skills gap for businesses that need qualified workers.

McCrory’s senior education adviser, Catherine Truitt, said 54 percent of the state’s workers currently have some sort of post-high school education. By 2025, less than a decade from now, the state will need an additional 520,000 trained workers to meet employers’ demands.

“That, if we had to fill today, we would not have the human capacity to do,” Truitt said. “This is our gap.”

Truitt said we’re approaching an “economic reality” where a lack of training or education beyond high school often means you will sit below the poverty line. That education doesn’t just include college degrees, but also certifications in fields such as auto mechanics, welding and truck driving. So 67 percent is a crucial goal.

There are roadblocks to every objective. Education Cabinet members went around the room listing them.

As always, there’s a waiting list for pre-kindergarten slots for at-risk children, as the importance of early childhood education has never been more obvious.

Many schools with large concentrations of low-income students continue to struggle, even though there are success stories. Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, said a continuing focus on digital learning, along with coaching for young teachers, would help meet that challenge.

“We’ve got to bring those kids along, for everybody’s sake,” Cobey said.

State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson said schools need to hire more career development counselors to give sound advice to students.

“That is a big strategy for helping students to develop dreams,” she said.

Teachers need more career development opportunities, particularly in digital learning, and better and faster Internet access still is needed in parts of the state.

Salaries for teachers should be increased to encourage the brightest students to enter that profession.

“We’re going to be very focused on that in the coming short session,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican.

McCrory suggested a need to ensure county and state inmates leave prisons with opportunities other than returning to crime.

“That could … help us get a qualified work force and give people a second chance,” he said.

The governor also said he would continue to fight for better mental health and addiction recovery programs.

“We’re losing not only families and individuals, but we’re losing potential talent for the future,” McCrory said.

A representative from the university system stressed the importance of keeping education costs low, so students aren’t saddled with insurmountable debt after graduation.

McCrory said at the start of the Education Cabinet meeting that the panel has been a “very engaging group of people who have been very upfront with each other.”

That must continue.

Patrick Gannon is the editor of the Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh.

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