Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Johnston County’s hot economy shows major promise

Johnston County has been one of the fastest-growing counties in North Carolina, benefiting from being the southeastern edge of the Research Triangle region. But it aspires to be more than a commuter exurb.

Last week I sat in on Ted Abernathy’s presentation on Johnston’s workforce development plan. Abernathy runs a Shallotte-based company, Economic Leadership. He is a veteran economic developer and strategist who does a lot of consulting in North Carolina and nationally.

My wife and I have lived in the county for nearly 27 years and watched the schools prepare our own children and their friends for the workforce.

Johnston wants to shape its own destiny. That’s why Abernathy was at the Ag center outside Smithfield, the county seat off Interstate 95, on a cold, rainy morning, presenting to the Johnston County Workforce Alliance, a public-private partnership of the county’s economic development office.

In the past decade, the county’s population has grown by nearly 28%, which has helped expand the workforce, although many new residents head up Interstate 40 to jobs in Raleigh and Durham. Johnston wants more of them to work in the county.

North Carolina’s population is projected to grow around 21% by 2042; Johnston may grow by 42%. That would add some 90,000 more folks to today’s 220,000-plus Johnston population.

“So, the quantity of workers moving in is a big strength for you,” says Abernathy.  “You’re the exact opposite of what’s going on nationally.”

Ted Abernathy

Johnston benefited over the last quarter-century from good road access to Raleigh and Durham employment hubs, like state government and RTP, while being just far enough out to have reasonably priced land. One of Johnston’s magnets has been affordable housing, compared to North Raleigh or Cary. But that is becoming less of an advantage.

‘You guys are in the middle,” says Abernathy, with homes averaging around $345,000.  “You’re not Chatham County [$550,000], but you’re no longer Vance [$140,000] or Nash [$218,000]. You’re in the middle and going up. Affordability will be an issue for you for workforce in the future, and you need to think about that.”

Even though Johnston’s population is growing, its labor force participation rate is lower than the region.  Johnston’s rate is around 59.3%. Durham County is 68.7% and Wake County is 67.8%.  The region – from the Virginia border counties to Harnett, and from I-95 to Chatham – is at 64%.  The U.S. is at 62.4%.

“How do you get more of the people off the sidelines and back into the game?” That’s the challenge, says Abernathy. “The older your population, the less the participation rate.  Sometimes it has to do with women not in the workforce. Sometimes it has to do with young people not transitioning.  There’s lots of reasons people aren’t in the workforce.  But it is an issue for you.”

Meanwhile, job postings in the county have steadily increased. There were around 650 in January 2019 but nearly 1,900 last summer. Job postings in some regions had a big drop during the height of the pandemic. Not Johnston. “You ran right through it as if it wasn’t even happening. Jobs kept on mounting.”

The county’s jobless rate in December was 2.8%, below the state’s 3.2%. There were around 3,000 officially unemployed people, meaning folks who were jobless but looking. Johnston’s jobless rate hasn’t been this low since the late ‘90s, when it was less of a suburban/commuter county and more of a typical rural county, with textile plants and tobacco warehouses.

The top growing industry clusters now are biopharma, production technology, heavy machinery, distribution and e-commerce. Several of the largest biopharma plants in the state are in Clayton – Novo Nordisk and GrifolsCaterpillar has a big plant. Amazon has just built a massive import processing facility in Smithfield. Within a year, the completion of the 540 Outer Loop to Garner, straddling the Wake-Johnston border, will make Johnston even more attractive to logistics companies and developers, and the rest of the Loop to Knightdale could be finished by 2030, which will turbocharge growth in Johnston even more.

One challenge Abernathy noted is raising the educational attainment level in the county, which is a priority around the state. The county has gotten more educated over time. In the last decade, the share of folks with an associate degree or higher has climbed around 8 percentage points.  But right now, half the residents 25-44 in Johnston lack an associate degree or industry-recognized credential. That’s around 27,000 people.

There are a lot of skilled positions that require two-year degrees or a credential, and pay well. The high schools – with their career and technical education programs – and Johnston Community College, with technical degrees and certificates – have lots of programs. They need help raising awareness of them.

Abernathy and his staff interviewed folks around the county – businesses, HR people, community college students, as well as high school parents, students and teachers. Here were some of the things they heard:

  • Not enough businesses are working with the public schools, the community college or NC Works. Those who have engaged with them found them valuable resources.  But business awareness of them is low. “We heard a whole bunch of ‘Who are those people?’ And we hear that everywhere,” says Abernathy.
  • It would help if county residents were more aware of local career opportunities and the training available for them
  • Young people need more work experience. Abernathy says the number of young people who have summer jobs or after-school jobs is a fraction of what it used to be. They need more site visits to businesses, job shadowing opportunities, mentoring, internships, summer jobs and apprenticeships. “Employers say people don’t know how to work anymore,” says Abernathy.  “Well, they’ve not worked.”
  • There’s a general belief that there’s too much focus on students going to four-year colleges.  “About a quarter of the jobs in America need a four-year degree,” says Abernathy. “That’s it. That’s always been it. We want good jobs and training for the other three-quarters of our kids.”  Now, one challenge is that a lot of parents want their children to go to a university, and don’t see them in a trade, even a really good-paying trade. Which is why, Abernathy says, high school CTE programs should have content on entrepreneurship and running a small business. A young person who learns HVAC should be prepared to start their own HVAC business eventually. The prospect of their child developing into a small business owner could warm parents up to CTE. The report also says more career counselors or career coaches are needed in middle and high schools, and existing counselors need help learning about local work experience and career opportunities.
  • Parents have to be included in the workforce development process. “Telling the kid is one thing. Making their parents talk about it every day at dinner is something else,” Abernathy says.
  •  One significant concern raised in interviews was “soft skills.” Nearly two-thirds of stakeholders said they had trouble finding workers who communicated well, are reliable and have good interpersonal skills.  What can be done is to develop employability skills at an earlier age with expanded career-readiness certification programs already used in Johnston.
  • The report describes some programs that have worked elsewhere. “Find one, steal one,” says Abernathy. “Scale what works.”  With tight labor markets, workforce strategies have begun looking at prison inmates who are on track for release. Other programs are focused on people 55 and over.  During the pandemic, 2 million in this age group left the labor force. Short-term job training programs might get some of them back.

Schools are sometimes told to do things they are already trying to do with limited resources. They need partners, especially businesses and parents.

After Abernathy gave his presentation, Kathryn Farrior, workforce development specialist at Johnston’s CTE office, described all the career and workforce development programs that schools provide. It is a lot.  It starts in kindergarten with career days and concepts of work and jobs.  By grades 6-8, students are getting career coaching, and in high school there’s job shadowing and mock interviews and the like. Mentorships. Internships. Industry field trips.

“We’ve got a lot of really good things going on in the school system in Career & Technical Education that we know, you don’t know anything about,” she told the gathering.  “So, we are having some discussions about how to increase awareness, and how to better communicate between us and our stakeholders,” she said.

That is a particularly difficult task in a high-growth county filled with many newcomers, especially in the business community. Just in the last decade, the county has gained 1,300 more companies, a 43% jump in the number of private establishments. It takes time for folks to get to know each other, and who does what. The gathering last week was part of that.


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