Reader feedback on workforce challenges and opportunities in N.C.

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Recently, BNC asked readers to provide feedback on relevant topics that address the hurdles N.C. employers and economic developers experience when it comes to navigating and benefiting from the state’s workforce-development system. What does the N.C. business community need to do in terms of improving the workforce in North Carolina? What are the challenges? Here’s some of the responses:

 

“Ask any builder, and they will tell you the biggest shortage in this state, and across the country, is finding skilled tradesmen. Since shop class was taken out of the high schools, kids have not been encouraged to go into any of the trades. Plus, the community colleges don’t receive as much money per student who might be considering attending trade school as they do the college transfer student, so there is less incentive to promote these programs.

There is a request to the legislature for a $5 million grant so North Carolina can create the ‘Be Pro Be Proud’ program that have started in Arkansas, Georgia and a couple of other states. You can learn more about it at beprobeproud.org. This is to bring awareness to the thousands of jobs in manufacturing, transportation, utility and construction industries that are unfilled across the country. We know we need to reach the kids in the middle school age group as they plan for their future. It is important for them, as well as their parents, to know that a four-year degree is not always the right path for everyone. Studying for a trade will enable the student to graduate with very little debt and walk right into a job earning $50k to $80k.

The Be Pro Be Proud mobile workshop offers 1,000 square feet of onboard interactive space where students can get a small taste of some of the tools utilized in these trades professions. This stands to be the largest mobile tour supporting the workforce initiative.”

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“Regarding your request for comments about workforce development in North Carolina, three years ago, the North Carolina Masonry Contractors Association made a major commitment to addressing recruitment and development of a skilled workforce for the masonry industry in North Carolina by creating and filling a full-time staff position dedicated to training and workforce development. We are a small organization, so manning the position and funding the associated expense almost doubled NCMCA’s annual operating expense. It was “a leap of faith.” But our membership stepped up because they know what’s at stake.

Today I can tell you the bet appears to be paying off, and the program is exceeding expectations. As a bonus, many of us, myself included, have changed our perception of young people based on the association’s interaction with students through the program. There are lots of young people in the state who will embrace the opportunity to succeed through hard work and apprenticeship if they are approached and introduced to the possibility in the proper fashion.

Ryan Shaver, NCMCA’s workforce development and training coordinator, works with high school and vocational masonry training programs to train instructors, engage students and connect potential apprentice masons with prospective employers. Compared to other states, North Carolina has maintained an exceptional number of high school masonry-training programs through efforts of the industry that began as far back as the 1960s. With changing times however, there was a recognition that the programs needed to be reinvigorated. There was a “disconnect” between the masonry contracting firms (potential employers) and the school programs.  NCMCA’s new program is successfully addressing that concern. The re-invigoration is solidly underway.

Mr. Shaver also created an NCMCA masonry pre-apprentice program in partnership with [ApprenticeshipNC] (a program of the community college system) that allows high school age students to work on masonry construction job sites, earning at least $12 an hour and gaining high school graduation credit as they experience a practical introduction to masonry. The program has enjoyed great enthusiasm among students.”

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“On Friday, you asked for some feedback to share on improving North Carolina’s workforce. I echo many sentiments across the state that scarce workforce availability is a major concern for not only sustaining business but growing it.

In short, I’d offer one idea: tax credits that support the construction of affordable housing. Tax credits incentivize so many things (think 401(k)s and Health Savings Accounts), and the credit itself is the profit margin needed to spur private development.”

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“I am a business broker living in Greenville, but my service area is primarily focused on all of eastern North Carolina.  In my opinion, the BIGGEST challenge for our region and its economic growth is the lack of a robust, affordable broadband service. Both our businesses and especially our residents need this in order to be a viable player in attracting investment and retaining our population.”

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“When I (and I suspect most business people) think of the term “workforce development,” my mind naturally gravitates toward programs that develop hard skills, such as vocational programs I hear about at our state’s amazing community colleges. However, this perspective is probably far too narrow as your friend writing the article would attest. Based on my experience, I would suggest that “soft skills” are equally or even more critical in order to develop a highly efficient and valuable workforce for North Carolina.

I’ve spent my entire professional career in banking.  Fortunately, North Carolina is blessed with a host of exceptional financial-services companies. However, I didn’t learn banking in high school or college, and I suspect most of my peers would say the same. You learn banking on the job. Even with a business degree, I knew precious little about banking when I entered the industry, and what I knew came from my mother, who was a career banker.  My finance and accounting classes certainly taught me technical competencies but precious little about how to apply them in the fast-paced and ever-changing world of banking.

The division I lead here hires more new employees than any other division at our company. Most of my team are front-line workers in branches doing sales and customer service. Most new hires are entry level with little previous work experience and rarely any banking experience. We begin teaching them hard skills, such as policies, procedures, regulations and systems beginning day one. Most can usually grasp much of the required technical skills they need within six to 12 months. But I see many employees struggle for years developing critical soft skills — communication, professional writing, phone skills, personal responsibility/ownership, and other basic sales and service skills.  These skills are more subjective and often require even more fundamental life skills in order to fully develop — judgement, focus, emotional control, patience, listening, maturity, etc.

These soft skills are the ones that I see most lacking in our workforce and separate employees with management/leadership capability from those whose career might otherwise be limited to task/technical/functional jobs. I believe the shortage of a workforce skilled in these areas diminishes the overall productivity and competitiveness of our state and country. As the U.S. increasingly becomes a services-based economy, it’s my hope the professionals driving workforce-development programming understand these needs and place equal emphasis on them. Fortunately, my company is committed to developing critical soft skills among our employees, but it remains an ongoing challenge. My industry, as well as the consumers and businesses we serve, would greatly benefit from additional workforce development and workforce preparedness aimed at these and other soft skills.”

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“My opinions based on 40-plus years as a CFO and finance exec in [the] public and private sector:

1. Use of gig employment versus salaried or commission employment gives employees little focus or comfort in a long-term career with an employer.

2. Use of community college partnerships is critical for employers developing middle and lower income employment with needed skills.

3. The N.C. General Assembly’s lack of response to education needs, health care needs, voter rights, and promoting of tax cuts at expense of health, environment, and social responsibility of government will continue to doom us as a bottom tier state.”

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“With the influx of life sciences, focus on existing life-sciences clients and their talent needs [are] paramount.  This will also impact the other sectors as well.

A new kind of worker needs to be trained to work on manufacturing floors. Jobs in this sector have been lost to more automated processes, removing people from the product. The talent needed in this space requires different levels of staff… those with Ph.D.s, MBAs, etc., who must learn what it means to work in an FDA regulated environment as workers who are adept at learning and using technology in highly automated environments; understand the complexities of the regulatory requirements of working in a manufacturing environment of this type.

We’ve a great community college system, and Wake Tech Community College is phenomenal and will be a huge part of the success we have in this region for the manufacturing level resources and training.

We’ve got to do a better job K-12 prepping them for these careers.”

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“I am going to make this reply very simple.

We need people!

McCreary Modern could hire 100 skilled crafts people tomorrow if they were available.”

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“Key issues:

1. Base layer: no knowledge of the free market system. Workers do not understand where paycheck comes from, and the role of individual responsibility. This needs to be taught in school, and can not depend on info from home. If I were head of HR a one-page primer on how society works would be handed out. No politics, just facts. Customer-product/service-delivery-payment = paycheck.

2. Testing: Employers need metrics to qualify applicants. Not the only deciding factor, but extremely helpful in choosing whom to recruit. And that same testing helps the applicant understand what they are good at and what training they need to further themselves.

The N.C. Employment Security Commission used to test every one who walked in the door, and it was extremely accurate, efficient and helpful to employers and applicants. Not sure the status of that, may have been stopped due to perceived testing bias. But it is not being talked about, and is an incredible tool to match people with jobs.

3. Safety: like free market, key concepts of safety taught uniformly in our school system is critical, and is reassuring to employers. Not just limited to Mfg but to all jobs.

4. Apprenticeships: goes back to testing. Seems all high schoolers are being primed to take the SAT. This is logical in that almost all teachers are college graduates. Testing to determine aptitude and skill levels across many jobs will help students, educators and employers. Non-college bound can focus on skills they have identified with.

Last idea: We have incarcerated mostly young men in their prime productive years. We need workers to replace/repair infrastructure. It’s insane that N.C. — or more importantly, the U.S. government — has not created a training program to have these folks emerge from prison with skills in the highest demand. Take it a step further — if you “graduate” from prison with this certified training, you are exempt from the barriers that keep you from contributing to society. Have the U.S. military test them and train them. Give them a uniform, or at least a T-shirt that makes them proud.”

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“In Alexander County, we are a manufacturing community (a lot of furniture), and all of them are having difficulty finding employees and retaining employees. About all of the manufacturers are saying they could hire 25-30 people today. It seems many people are enjoying the unemployment benefits, plus people don’t want to do hard labor (sewing, upholstery, etc.). The demand for furniture far exceeds the supply because of employee shortages (and the recent foam shortage). Hope this helps a little!”

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“My unfortunate experiences in North Carolina revolve around a futile judicial system that refuses to protect those operating within the law. That has an impact on the health and morale of people working here. It also does not weed out those criminals who were not charged and does not protect either business nor the people working there. Great work!”

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“What does the state’s business community (you) think we need to do in terms of improving the workforce in North Carolina? What are the challenges?

Challenge: Debunk the myth that manufacturing and trades careers are not financially rewarding and fulfilling. And the corresponding myth that one must have a bachelor’s degree to have a successful career.

Action: (a) Make career development mandatory and a much higher priority for all students, beginning no later than middle school.  Career development is critical for all students no matter what path they choose.

(b) Eliminate the barriers that students face to gain work experience and those that employers face to provide it.”

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“I have been a local economic developer for the past 13 years (Dayton, Ohio; Craven County; Durham). I am also a former teacher. Education is the single most important element in our country’s future.”

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“In offering a suggestion for your friends workshop/session as a critical challenge to workforce development and frankly returning to the workforce is going to be quality child care/day care. Over 25% of day cares statewide closed permanently during the onset of the pandemic. Others reduced staffing as regulations changed along with the reduction of jobs eliminated families need for day care. This is something we are attempting to address. One of our proposals we pitching is to larger companies is to help establish and support through partial funding of day cares.

I am sure she has the training for various types of jobs from advanced manufacturing, logistics ETC. covered. Quality job training is most important, but without quality day care…”

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“I’m a CPA on the Outer Banks. The most significant issue I hear from my clients is an overall lack of housing and even more so, affordable housing. Our issue is perhaps unique to our location but has rapidly become a major issue for our local economy. We are of course predominately a service-based tourism economy with a high degree of seasonality. It has always been difficult to find housing for seasonal workers. In the past five years, the issue has become even more acute as more and more owners convert their in-house apartments and rooms into rentals through Airbnb and VRBO. Home prices have increased significantly here over the past 12 months. The prevalence of low interest rate mortgages and owners realizing they can live here and work remotely from here have created an extremely high demand for housing. This high demand has further exacerbated the availability of housing for seasonal workers. And this housing crisis is affecting the ability to attract year round workers, such as teachers, health care workers and so forth who can’t afford the escalating price of housing.”

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“When it comes to workforce development, many organizations have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Labor markets were disrupted, and organizations scrambled to update their work policies while also attempting to optimize internal processes and leverage technology in the midst of so much economic uncertainty. If an organization was fortunate to remain open, their workforce was often scattered with only essential employees who worked in a job that couldn’t be performed remotely in an actual office together. In-person onboarding, training and professional-development efforts became virtual meetings through video conferences, Zoom calls, etc. At Ward and Smith, we were fortunate to have a flexible workforce policy and a strong technology platform already in place in response to existing trends in remote work and automation.

Although learning and development programs are important, they often aren’t prioritized and tend to take up immense amounts of time. Organizations should consider leveraging technology such as videoconferences to reduce the amount of time connected to workforce development. Is it really necessary to spend the time and money associated with traveling to face-to-face meetings, when less expensive more efficient options are available? In most cases, organizations are having to operate with reduced staffing levels for an undetermined amount of time as part of cost-cutting efforts to reduce expenses and preserve capital.

Finally, more people may need to transition to new jobs or acquire enhanced skills in a post-COVID-19 scenario. Organizations will need to take steps to support additional training and education programs for employees. Dollars that had previously been dedicated to workforce development for many are most likely reduced or no longer available. To maintain positive momentum when it comes to workforce development, I think progressive organizations will construct creative in-house solutions to providing ongoing training and development. “

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