ELMORE: Thinking big on workforce development

Rep. Jeff Elmore (R-Wilkes)

We are fortunate in North Carolina to have an abundance of resources and blessings, which have brought accolades over the last few years.  

Of these accolades, one stood out to me: CNBC rated North Carolina number one in business in the country two years in a row. Among the metrics they measure to reach this conclusion, North Carolina scores well in the category that rates the strength of our workforce, but when you talk to North Carolina business owners, that is not matching the reality on the ground. They say retention of employees, and especially new hires, is tough.  

They say you can’t find people to work. And so, I want to use this accolade as a way to identify the disconnect and pursue solutions that will fix this problem: and one way to do that is to match our workforce development plans to each local economy. 

There has been a lot of focus on technical education recently across the country, and rightfully so ― these are good paying, high-quality jobs. However, it cannot be our only focus. To get the recipe for success right, we must think bigger, because we have workforce developments needs for everything from bricklayers to chemists.  

The North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) made progress in this area, which is part of what likely led to our strength in CNBC’s metric. We have some innovative programs that have worked to address our workforce development, but we also have room for improvement. For example, a shining example is an apprenticeship program that creates a pipeline to connect workers with businesses. Initially, this program was limited to 16-to-24-year-olds, but we have found that an even better demographic to target would be people in their 30s, who are interested in acquiring skills that will lead to higher-paying jobs. 

In another big win for workforce development, we created a nursing pipeline in conjunction with a local hospital. In collaboration with the local community college, they work with high schools and now even middle schools to show students the possibilities in the nursing field and begin to train them early, so they are ready to enter the workforce upon graduation. This “grow your own” has had enormous success keeping hospital workers in places where we need them the most — our rural areas. Replicating and expanding this program to other rural areas of the state could be a game-changer, as we have staffing challenges at rural hospitals and an aging population in those areas. 

But we also have challenges. I continue to hear from businesses that they have issues connecting the right workforce to highly specialized fields, especially in manufacturing. Manufacturing processes have changed through the decades, and these are often highly-skilled, technologically advanced positions. In some cases, a business may only need four or five people trained on a new process — not enough to justify creating a program at a community college or technical school, but these are high-quality jobs that we need to ensure we can fill. In these cases, a grant program that could be used to train workers on their specific process and technology could help fill this gap. 

Our corner of North Carolina contributes much to the agriculture sector in our region, but we have a shortage of workers for these jobs. I would create more agricultural programming and pipelines, like we’ve had success with in other sectors, to incentivize workers to remain in our rural areas and contribute to the agricultural industry.  

We know that statistically, there is a segment of the population that is not fully engaged in the workforce at all, and that is a problem. We need to do a better job of showcasing what jobs North Carolina has to offer — in all parts of our state, and in all sectors. In any program we consider, we should ask ourselves the most important question: “Are we connecting the workforce with what is in demand in the local economy?” We can make that match, and tackle that challenge. North Carolina’s best days are still ahead, and I want to be part of that economic success story.   

Jeffrey Elmore represents District 94 in the North Carolina House of Representatives.