When it comes to workforce development, North Carolina’s southeastern counties should “skate to where the puck is going, not to where it currently is.”
That Wayne Gretzky analogy aired Tuesday from Steve Yost, chief of the regional economic development group North Carolina’s Southeast, which that morning unveiled a recently completed study that collaborators say should position the area to that effect.
“This is the most thorough and objective assessment ever done on our region’s greatest economic asset: its people,” Yost said in a statement about the study, titled “Workforce Needs Analysis & Strategic Plan for the N.C. Southeast Region.” A nonprofit called Regional Technology Strategies Inc. prepared it following 18 months of research.
The group examined the region’s target industries, its workforce and specialties, and its existing employers. The study ultimately found that the region could become a powerhouse by improving or developing partnerships focused on the area’s existing strengths, emerging industries and luring appropriate business that would invest in local economies, subsequently putting skilled residents to work.
“It encourages each community college, for example, to concentrate curricular resources into ‘centers of excellence’ that would support the region’s target industry clusters, designing programs with input from employers that would draw students, workers and trainees from outside its traditional service area,” a summary of the report stated.
A model for that is found at Fayetteville Technical Community College (FTCC), which is steering its workforce development efforts toward three key industry groups NCSE says the region should target: advanced manufacturers, logistics operations and military businesses.
“The net result of this is it gives us the ability to provide more talent more consistently that fits with the needs that are going to be out there,” said FTCC President Larry Keen in a statement.
Cape Fear Community College, according to the report, is positioning itself by offering new programs in the technologies of nuclear energy, industrial systems and sustainability.
And Brunswick Community College, though it offers a wide range of studies, has geared itself toward aquaculture, health sciences and turfgrass management.
“The target clusters represent 13 percent of the region’s employment today but innovative policy and program responses can increase that concentration,” the study said.
An emerging cluster regionally is the aerospace and aviation industry, researchers emphasized. While the industry employed 2,342 workers regionally in 2011, it is expected to grow nearly 28 percent by 2016.
Aerospace and aviation is “growing significantly within the state and is a key target for development, especially after the location of Spirit AeroSystems in the Global Transpark,” the report said. “In recent years the state has seen significant new and/or expanding aerospace firms like HondaJet (in Greensboro) and GE Engines (in Durham). The location of Boeing in Charleston and perhaps Gulfstream in Savannah, Georgia also provide significant supply chain opportunities for the region’s firms.”
The cluster’s industries range from parts manufacturing to flight training, researchers added. And while the state’s southeastern region isn’t a force yet in the field, there’s potential. New Hanover and Cumberland counties currently represent essentially all of the region’s related employment currently.
“The economic base in Wilmington with General Electric and the expanding aerospace presence at Fort Bragg provides solid footing for increases across the region–particularly if a well-trained workforce is available,” said the report. “The greatest potential lies in becoming part of the supply chain for the large manufacturers like Spirit and Boeing.”
Brunswick County Economic Development Corporation Director Jim Bradshaw said he’s trying to seize the opporunity. At the time of this story’s publication his department’s marketing staffer was in Orlando, Fla., at an airplane industry conference manning a booth with state officials to promote the Wilmington region for parts manufacturing related to Spirit and Boeing. “There are hundreds of distributors down there,” Bradshaw said of the conference, adding that private contributions to the Brunswick County Economic Development Foundation enabled the trip at no cost to taxpayers.
A related industry the region may want to grow is metalworking, though it has experienced a 27 percent employment decline since last year, with 650 jobs lost, the report showed. The state and nation experienced similar rates of loss.
Bradshaw’s office is trying for a rebound, at least within in Brunswick County. He’s currently courting 13 industrial prospects, several of which are metal fabricators. Bradshaw said he expects to know sometime after the presidential election whether at least one of those companies will pick Brunswick County for a new facility. He added that in two weeks he and officials from NCSE will attend a metalworking trade-show to promote the region’s industrial parks.
Manufacturing in general has crucial needs to meet, NCSE’s report said, noting a recent publication by consulting group Deloitte, in partnership with the Manufacturing Institute, found that more than 80 percent of manufacturers surveyed “have a moderate to severe shortage in finding skilled production workers: machinists, operators, technicians and distributors.”
Further, more than 70 percent of manufacturers said the shortage impairs their ability to expand. “Even with the country’s high unemployment rate, companies noted that nearly 5 percent of all jobs in manufacturing, which translates to approximately 600,000 jobs nationwide, go unfilled because they cannot get enough qualified workers.”
NCSE’s report said that should be a “wake-up call” to North Carolina, whose economy can give significant credit to the manufacturing industry.
According to a 2011 report from N.C. State University, manufacturing is the top-valued contributor to the state’s $398 billion gross domestic product. In 2009 it made up 18.2 percent of it, or $72 billion.
Economic developers like Yost and his group say the region’s schools should align themselves to meet the need.
But that can be challenging, officials say, as the economic slowdowns here and beyond have created funding shortfalls for technical schools while enrollment has increased with residents searching for new skills and well-paying careers.
To stay on the curve, community colleges, for instance, may have to expand their financial collaborations. Cape Fear Community College, for one, has the “largest single-county bond ever approved in North Carolina’s history” worth $164 million to cover renovations and build new facilities, according to NCSE.
The group summarized: “A well-trained, knowledgeable and innovative workforce is one of, if not the most important factor, needed to build a globally competitive economy. The development of a highly-integrated and collaborative workforce system in the region, one that provides cutting-edge education and training to prepare new workers and upgrade the skills of existing workers, will act as an economic development catalyst for the North Carolina’s southeast region.
“Implementation within the region is the next step.”
Click here to view the study in full.