Policy Position

Education and the Workforce

in Education


Do North Carolinians need four-year degrees to be successful? According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections, those who decide to enter the workforce without a four-year degree may have more employment opportunities than those with one.

BLS analysts predict that jobs requiring a high school diploma, associate degree, or post-secondary certificate will be plentiful over the next decade. Of the 20 occupations projected to have the largest numeric growth in jobs, only five require a bachelor’s degree. Of those five occupations, registered nurses lead the pack with a projected 437,000 jobs created nationwide by 2026. That figure pales in comparison to personal care aids and food service workers, which usually do not require a bachelor’s degree and are projected to add 754,000 and 579,900 jobs, respectively, during that period.

The N.C. Department of Commerce projects that health care support and practitioner occupations are the two occupational groups that will have the largest employment growth in North Carolina over the next six years. The largest estimated declines will be in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations.

Elected officials have taken notice of these trends. The N.C. General Assembly passed legislation to increase access to functional and practical career and technical education. This included the development of career and college endorsements for high school diplomas and bonuses for career and technical education teachers based on the number of students who earn state-approved industry certifications or credentials. In addition, lawmakers and the governor have encouraged greater collaboration between school districts and community colleges to increase the number of students enrolling in career and technical education (CTE) in high-need employment areas.

A renewed focus on career and technical education is only a first step, but it is a welcome one for employers and taxpayers.

Key Facts

  • Selected career and technical education students in 12th grade complete the ACT WorkKeys assessment. Scores will help students determine if they have the skills needed for particular jobs or professions.  In addition, students who meet WorkKeys standards can earn a National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) showing that they have met basic requirements for entry into a profession. Last year, 8,596 students earned WorkKeys Gold or Platinum scores, the highest of the four NCRC achievement levels.
  • The number of industry-recognized credentials earned by North Carolina students has risen sharply in recent years. During the 2010-11 school year, North Carolina students received nearly 25,000 career and technical education credentials.  By 2016-17, that figure rose to over 160,000 credentials.  Around 27 percent of the 2016-17 credentials were awarded for acquiring Microsoft PowerPoint or Word proficiency.
  • Other popular credentials include National Center for Construction Education & Research, EverFi (financial literacy), CPR Health Care Provider, Workplace Readiness Soft Skills, and OSHA 10-Hour Construction Industry Certification.
  • Seventeen credential areas had 25 or fewer completers during the 2016-17 school year.


  1. Dispel the myth that all high school graduates should pursue college degrees. If we did so, students who are ill-prepared for college would not incur massive student loan debt, and taxpayers would not be compelled to subsidize their pursuit of four-year degrees. Employers would enjoy a larger, arguably better-prepared, pool of candidates from which to hire.  Most importantly, these students would have plentiful employment opportunities in North Carolina for years to come.
  2. Starting in middle school, give public school students opportunities to pursue vocational or advanced training in preparation for a career after graduation. CTE programs should start in middle school, when many students lose interest in the traditional academic setting. This would give students ample time to change CTE program areas, obtain advanced skills in multiple areas, or switch to a college-preparatory course of study.
  3. If high schools are to remain the primary pipeline for workers in high-demand fields, then we must ensure that our K-12 schools provide baseline skills and knowledge to all students. All high school graduates should possess adequate literacy and computational skills, know basic facts about the world around them, and be able to use those facts to think, write, and speak critically and analytically.
  4. Expand school choice. Increasing access to charter, private, and online schools would encourage entrepreneurs to develop specialized career and technical schools suitable for students in their communities.
  5. Community colleges and universities should continue to invest scarce resources in professional training and degree programs that correspond to the needs of our workforce. While this does not preclude support for other academic disciplines, funding priorities should, in part, reflect the supply and demand for qualified workers in fields such as nursing, business management, accounting, teaching, and computer programming.

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