Help Wanted: North Carolina’s real economic development problem

By: Tom Campbell - Contributing columnist

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 de-emphasize 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.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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Tom Campbell

Contributing columnist