McCrory: NC colleges should focus on job skills

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday he's determined to get North Carolina's public university system to focus on teaching what's useful in terms of getting a job and criticized an "educational elite" for offering courses in subjects such as gender studies that don't lead students onto clear career paths.

McCrory said he instructed his staff Monday to draft legislation "in which we change the basic formula and how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges, not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs."

The Republican governor's tough talk on a radio talk show hosted by conservative Bill Bennett, President Ronald Reagan's education secretary, signals a willingness to challenge the state's education system in a way that Democratic governors rarely did and in language likely appealing to social conservatives. They also came as the state grapples with the country's fifth-highest unemployment rate and the 17-campus University of North Carolina system crafts a new five-year plan.

Bennett, a Bald Head Island resident who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas and a law degree from Harvard, took a jab at gender studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, the state's flagship public university. McCrory agreed with Bennett's choice of target.

"That's a subsidized course. And frankly if you want to take gender studies that's fine, go to a private school and take it," said McCrory, who graduated from private Catawba College. "But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job. Right now, I'm looking for engineers. I'm looking for technicians. I'm looking for mechanics."

The governor's comments come as the UNC system's governing board considers a five-year plan that aims to make North Carolina one of the most educated states by increasing the percentage of residents with a four-year college degree from 28 percent to 32 percent by 2018. The plan also would focus investments in promising research areas in science and technology like advanced manufacturing and data sciences.

"I think some of the educational elite have taken over our education where we are offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs," McCrory said on Bennett's program. "So I'm going to adjust my educational curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt."

But education isn't only technical training, and employers demand students with problem-solving, analytical, communication and team-working skills, said UNC-Chapel Hill faculty chairwoman Jan Boxill.

"We hope that all stakeholders recognize the importance of higher education - including liberal arts and the humanities - in creating critical thinkers, innovators and leaders," said Boxill, a philosophy professor and director of the Parr Center for Ethics.

University system resident Tom Ross said the state's public colleges are already shifting from a funding model focused solely on enrollment changes to one that considers performance on measures of student success and efficiencies. But universities also serve the state through its agricultural and industrial extension programs, small business and technology development centers, area health education centers, and other ways faculty and students interact with broader communities, Ross said.

"The university's value to North Carolina should not be measured by jobs filled alone," he said.

A survey of businesses across North Carolina released last year by a coalition of workforce development groups found jobs were going unfilled because employers across all the business sectors needed candidates with soft skills such as good communication, problem solving, and leadership. The survey also found companies reported some of the greatest shortages were for people with specific skills like electricians, welders, software developers, and employees trained in process improvement techniques.

Universities are adapting to changing business needs, said David Hollars, executive director of the Centralina Workforce Development Board in Charlotte and leader of the survey. He cited UNC Charlotte's effort to train engineers needed by Duke Energy, Siemens and other energy companies located in the region.

But Hollars said he backs McCrory's drive to get colleges to focus on results rather than output of graduates.

"The real issue is to make sure whoever is going into the university system can get a career," Hollars said.

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio.

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