As rumors continue to swirl on Jones Street about a deal on the FY2015-2017 budget (House Speaker Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Berger will hold a press briefing today at 3:00 p.m.), investments in North Carolina’s community colleges and workforce development programs remain an area of critical concern. These programs are essential for improving the skills and competitiveness o f our labor force and ensuring that low-income workers have accesses to the training resources they need to achieve long-term upward mobility in their careers and lifetime earnings.
Job training and basic adult education are critical investments that give workers—especially those at the bottom of the income scale—the tools they need to enter higher-wage occupations. For many, these programs can mean the difference between a life trapped in poverty-wage jobs and a life with opportunities to climb the career ladder and enter the middle class. Career pathway programs  in particular create avenues for workers to build occupation-specific skills consecutively over the course of a career, creating stepping stones for long-term advancement within that occupation.
As a result, these programs provide a powerful policy-level antidote to income inequality and wage stagnation. As the recent State of Working North Carolina report  points out, wages remained largely flat in decade prior to Great Recession and then experienced a significant decline in years since the recession. This is largely the result of policies that allowed corporate executives and investors to earn the lion’s share of increased productivity achieved by technological advancements.
Building skills through job training and workforce development is an important tool for returning these productivity gains to workers—both by strengthening the ability of individual workers to bargain for better wages and by improving the overall recognized skills of the state’s workforce, a key competitive advantage that will create more quality jobs in North Carolina.
Given this reality, all eyes are on the emerging final budget deal to see how legislators treat these important programs. Thus far in the budget debat e, there has been little good news. Overall, the Senate has cut more funding for these investments than the House in its proposal. In the House proposal passed earlier this summer, the Community College System received a $52 million cut compared to the $59 million cut served up by the Senate. Similarly, the House provides $15 in new money for instructional equipment at the community colleges, while the Senate provides just $5 million. And while the House provides $1.9 million for job training in economically struggling areas, the Senate does not, instead opting to invest $1.5 million to put community college “coaches” in high schools with the goal of helping high school students transition into vocational training programs upon graduation.
Legislators in both chambers tried to make up the loss of funding by increasing community college tuition by $4 per credit hour, but that figure has already increased 72% since 2009. With the new hike, that would shoot up to 81% — a figure that will disproportionately hurt low-income workers who face bigger financial obstacles to securing the training and basic education courses they need to begin climbing the career ladder.
Lastly, neither budget proposal adequately supports the state’s industry-oriented workforce development system. Both the House and Senate fail to increase funding for the state’s Basic Skills Plus program, which integrates adult basic education with career pathway programs in specific high-demand occupations. Even more troubling, both budgets cut the state’s apprenticeship programs, which provide workers in training programs on-the-job work experience with employers in target industries, The House cut this program by $350,000, while the Senate eliminated it altogether—an approach that calls into question the Senate’s long-stated goal to get unemployed workers back to work.
Unfortunately, these cuts come on top of long-term disinvestment in these programs . Since 2011, the community college system has been cut considerably, and both federal and state sources of funding for worker training have dwindled to historic lows.
The bottom line: North Carolina desperately needs to reinvest in the training programs best able to improve the state’s competitiveness for quality jobs and give workers critical opportunities to climb the career ladder into middle class stability. Let’s hope that as House and Senate leaders worked behind closed doors over the weekend to fashion a final budget, they found the courage and the cash to break the destructive pattern in which they have been mired in this critical area.
Allan Freyer is the Director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center .