There's no denying the painful human realities behind persistent double-digit unemployment rates. That's what Southeastern North Carolina currently faces, according to the latest data from the Division of Employment Security. But while the adverse impact of structural and cyclical job losses is obvious, there is more complexity to our region's job market than most "headline data" show. Chief among the economic challenges we face is a counterintuitive one: There are hundreds of good positions in our 11-county region that employers cannot fill because available workers here lack the required skills.
Now, with the help of actionable intelligence about how the region's workforce pairs with its coming economic landscape, educational providers, economic developers and business leaders can address skills deficits and begin setting our residents onto career paths that have staying power.
Among the central lessons gleaned from a recently completed report, "Workforce Needs Analysis & Strategic Plan for North Carolina's Southeast Region," is that to build a stronger and more sustainable regional economy, our human resources – indeed our region's greatest economic asset – must align with the needs of globally engaged industries now emerging here.
To accomplish this, educators at all levels must look downrange at the skills and aptitudes needed by the Southeast's most promising industry "clusters," those groups of related employers and industries whose proximity to each other enhances their collective competitiveness and shapes the growth potential of the region. Alternative energy, advanced manufacturing, defense-related businesses, marine trades, logistics and value-added agribusiness are among the clusters that offer lucrative possibilities for the region and it workers.
Among other action-items, the report calls for increased collaboration and curricular specialization among our public schools, community colleges and universities that can build a dynamic workforce pipeline that can move students, workers and the unemployed into the jobs of tomorrow, including "Knowledge Age" positions that require specialized credentials or graduate-level degrees.
Businesses also have a leadership role to play, communicating and collaborating with curriculum designers at all levels to ensure relevant hard and soft skills are being taught. For their part, economic developers can provide the cohesion and continuity for these partnerships, which when done effectively will energize and inform local and regional business recruitment and retention programs.
Much of what is needed is already taking place, albeit in a somewhat tentative and fragmented way. The new report, spearheaded by North Carolina's Southeast Regional Economic Development Partnership, provides a common framework and list of outcomes the 11-county Southeast Region can follow in boosting the vertical and horizontal integration of education, training and retraining programs.
Workforce development leaders at Brunswick Community College, for example, have organized curricula in solar-panel installation and "green" building that will support the region's alternative energy and building-products clusters. Fayetteville Tech Community College has launched new programs to support military businesses and logistics operations.
Other campuses in the region intend to concentrate instructional resources on clusters such as agricultural biotechnology, advanced metalworking and marine sciences. Such programs will be able to draw students and workers from a regional pool.
Richmond Community College's associate's degree program in electric utility substation and relay technology is an excellent example of such "destination" programs. The unique curriculum was developed in partnership with Progress Energy (now Duke Energy), which approached the college about its need for better-qualified utility technicians. Upon graduation, these students will be in high demand from Duke and companies throughout the electric utility industry. Expect to see more such collaborations among educators and employers in coming years.
With the analysis now complete, leaders from business and education must now maintain the momentum as they seek to implement the report's recommendations. While doing so will be expensive, the failure to move our workforce into the future will have far costlier consequences. To meet the challenges and opportunities ahead for Southeastern North Carolina, we must ensure our workforce readiness, economic development and business communities are on the same page – working across outdated lines of institutional and geographic demarcation.
Our region is now armed with a credible road map to 21st century prosperity. It's up to us to follow it.
Susanne Adams is president of Brunswick Community College; Dale McInnis is president of Richmond Community College in Hamlet; and Steve Yost is president of North Carolina's Southeast Partnership in Elizabethtown. The partnership coordinates economic development strategies across 11 southeastern counties. The complete workforce report can be found at tinyurl.com/cc57vtd.