Help wanted: North Carolina’s real economic development problem

| March 9, 2018

by Tom Campbell, Producer and Moderator, NC SPIN, March 7, 2018.

The “help wanted” sign is popping up all over North Carolina, and while it is a good sign of a healthy economy, it also portends some larger problems. Business owners and managers report they are having an increasingly difficult time finding workers to fill their job vacancies.

Two primary reasons they can’t find employees is that too many cannot pass the required drug tests, a clear marker of our state’s growing opioid addiction problem. But the biggest reason why jobs go unfilled is the skills gap, a lack of workers with necessary job skills.

Tom Friedman, in his book, Thank You for Being Late, says the world changed in 2007. In January of that year Apple first introduced the iPhone, a pivotal junction in the history of technology. Within the span of one year we saw the introduction and widespread adoption of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon’s Kindle and IBM’s Watson. Friedman calls this the “Age of Acceleration,” a period when both the technology and its acceptance raced with a light speed pace. The acceleration resulted in cataclysmic changes in the workforce.

According to The Hunt Institute, 59 percent of all jobs available in North Carolina this year require some level of post-secondary education, perhaps not a four year undergraduate or postgraduate degree, but more than just a high school diploma. They further report than only 34 percent of our population age 25 and older has an Associate’s degree or higher, 45 percent have a high school degree or less and the remaining 20 percent have some college, but not a degree. The problems are exacerbated when you overlay demographic changes. Those over 65 years of age will increase from 15 to 21 percent over the next decade or so, causing the working age population to shrink from 62 to 58 percent. We have what some describe as “leaky” workforce development, a perfect storm of increased demands for worker skills at the same moment of working age population declines.

What to do? Our state has some of the finest community colleges in the nation, offering outstanding skills and professional training, yet administrators say they have a hard time recruiting students, in part due to a blue-collar stigma. For decades we have drilled into our students that you must have a college degree to get a high-paying job and support a family. But many of the jobs available today, high paying jobs, include HVAC technicians, machinists, skilled tradesmen, service professionals and construction jobs. The Ingersoll Company, manufacturer of Club Car golf carts and Trane Air Conditioners, has a big plant in Davidson and in November reported 1,000 job openings they couldn’t fill. Some, they said, paid as much as $105,000.

We are not at all advocating that we deemphasize or decrease funding with our outstanding University System, only that we understand college isn’t for everyone, it isn’t necessary to have a degree to earn a good living and we must reinforce our community colleges skills training programs.

The question before our state is whether we will accept the challenge to help our workforce learn necessary jobs skills or be so late coming to that realization that these companies with help wanted signs decide to move elsewhere. This is the real economic development issue for North Carolina.


Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

Comments (3)

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  1. Jim Schaefer says:

    This reply hit the nail on the head. 1 other issue is new employees are usually temps with no benefits and many leave for jobs that have them.

  2. Steve Hutton says:

    This is a problem with several components. In some instances, there are employees out there with the necessary skills, but employers have not raised wages enough to attract employees from their current jobs. In other instances, employers are trying to foist the costs of training their employees onto taxpayers. Taxpayers can’t afford to train people for a single employer or a select few. Immigration policy is also draining trained employees, where citizens are not stepping up to fill the void. We also seem reluctant to boost vocational training at the HS level in order to retain pupils, particularly males–a reluctance borne from costs, anti-unionism, racism, and a failure to train vocational educators.

    Until the business community and educators begin to understand these very distinct components of the problem and address them separately, because each component requires its own solution, we will not solve this problem.

    Otherwise, the business community’s constant complaint that there aren’t enough skilled workers rings hollow. Sure, there are anecdotal examples, but mostly it just sounds like cost-shifting propaganda. There’s no sincere effort to address the problem.

  3. Bennie Spencer says:

    You can look again, but in the Piedmont, Greensboro, High Point, Winston the signs say “NOW HIRING”, they used to say help wanted or taking applications.