Solving Western North Carolina’s skills gap feels a lot like the 1993 hit movie Groundhog Day, says Michael Dempsey, dean and director of the Lenoir-Rhyne Center for Graduate Studies in Asheville.
No, Bill Murray isn’t at the table, but pre-COVID-19 discussions about the need to provide training for high-paying, high-demand jobs seemed to go on and on, Dempsey says. Educators would talk “ad nauseam” about the imperative to train workers to fill job openings. Industry leaders echoed the need for skilled workers to achieve business goals. All the while, the region was riding a 61-month streak of posting the lowest unemployment rate in the state.
Then the pandemic hit, turning the Asheville metro area economy on its head. Unemployment jumped from 3.6% in March to 16.2% in April. Those figures have begun to stabilize, falling to 5.5% at the end of 2020, but the job market turbulence has prompted a fresh look at how the local workforce matches up with current and future employment opportunities.
As of December, there were 21,391 unique job postings in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties, according to data analyzed by the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board. At the same time, 11,549 unemployed individuals were living in the same five-county region.
But many of the available jobs require higher levels of education or specialized training than those currently unemployed possess, says Nathan Ramsey, executive director of the Land of Sky Regional Council, a multicounty planning and development organization. “Across the board, we’re seeing a lot of employers struggle to meet their workforce needs,” Ramsey notes.
This time, it’s different
Although the economic scars left by the recent downturn can be seen across the workforce, employees with high levels of education have generally fared the best, Ramsey says. A study by the Brookings Institution found national unemployment rates rose to 21.2% for those with less than a high school degree, disproportionately affecting women and people of color.
Past recessions have followed a predictable trend, he explains. When unemployment is high, there’s usually a surge in enrollment at community colleges as people look for new, viable career opportunities. When unemployment rates drop, career centers and community colleges see high demand from employers looking for qualified applicants to fill openings.
But this time, things feel different, Ramsey says. Instead of looking for alternate employment, many people are leaving the labor force entirely. Some are assuming caretaker duties or supervising children taking part in remote learning, he says, while others who were close to retirement before the pandemic are walking away early.
Still others are prioritizing health over economic opportunity. Many booming industries — health care, manufacturing, information and technology support — require workers to be physically present, a less attractive prospect for residents seeking remote work.
Ramsey speculates that many unemployed or furloughed workers believe they’ll eventually be asked to return to their former jobs. Many of Asheville’s hospitality and tourism workers anticipate a travel boom following mass COVID-19 vaccinations, he adds, leaving many hesitant to shift industries ahead of the expected resurgence.
Where are the jobs?
During other economic downturns, workers have gravitated to the relative stability of the health care industry, Ramsey says. In some ways, the visibility of health care workers during the pandemic has boosted interest in the medical field, says Dr. Jon Weiner, dean of allied health at A-B Tech Community College. Others, Ramsey counters, are wary of the health risks on the COVID-19 front line and are shying away from medical training programs.
As of Feb. 22, HCA Healthcare listed 616 job postings across its Western North Carolina facilities, ranging from registered nurses and surgical technicians to schedulers and parking attendants. To attract applicants, Mission Health offers on-the-job training and clinical rotations and partners with area schools, chambers of commerce and workforce development boards, said spokesperson Nancy Lindell.
The region has also seen a steady rise in advanced manufacturing jobs since 2010, according to economic data from the U.S. Federal Reserve. At the end of 2020, WNC was home to approximately 20,000 manufacturing jobs; another 2,500 new manufacturing jobs have been announced in the last two years, including 800 positions announced by aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney and 68 new positions at Jabil Healthcare’s Asheville facility.
The average Pratt & Whitney salary will be $68,000, the company promises. Annual payroll is expected to top $55 million when all positions are filled.
To prepare WNC residents for those new gigs, A-B Tech has developed a two-pronged approach to create a pipeline of qualified candidates, explains Kevin Kimrey, the college’s economic and workforce development director. Students can enroll in short-term training programs to learn basics like the fundamentals of machinery or industrial maintenance. Once employees are hired, workers can take specialized, hyperfocused courses to learn specific job functions, including skills like leadership and working with spreadsheets.
The college also offers Pratt & Whitney-specific short-term training programs, and all those who complete the workshops will automatically qualify for an interview with the company, Kimrey says. Participants have so far ranged from teenagers fresh out of high school to people looking to enter a new line of work. Kimrey’s team is actively recruiting folks living in Asheville Housing Authority neighborhoods, military veterans and individuals receiving federal food assistance, he adds.
“You have such a vibrant and viable hospitality and tourism industry here in our area, which is great and provides a lot of jobs, but we all know they’re not always the best paying and the most stable,” Kimrey says. “But manufacturing is extremely strong here — the stability is there, and the technology that’s ingrained in advanced manufacturing is only growing stronger, leading to a lot of high-paying jobs.”
Playing the long game
But despite strong incentives, permanently moving the needle on the educational background needed to qualify for those good jobs won’t happen overnight. In 2019, the nonprofit myFutureNC pledged to ensure 2 million North Carolinians would have a high-quality credential or postsecondary degree by 2030. Local education partners welcomed the goal long before the pandemic, Dempsey of Lenoir-Rhyne says, and current trends have only underscored the need.
Only six out of every 10 WNC high school students will enroll in a higher education program, according to statistics compiled by Ramsey, and only three will obtain a degree before they turn 25. In response, the Land of Sky Regional Council formed the Educational Attainment and Workforce Collaborative to convene partners from Henderson, Madison, Transylvania and Buncombe counties to discuss strategies for meeting immediate hiring needs and creating sustainable long-term solutions.
The pilot program is the first of its kind in North Carolina, says Joseph Fox, a consultant tapped to coordinate the project. Funded by the John M. Belk Endowment, the collaborative hopes to provide 82,000 area residents with postsecondary credentials by 2030.
“One of the issues we have in Western North Carolina is when we look at demographics, we don’t have strong diversity within our population,” Fox says. “With the cost of living — and the cost of housing and child care — it’s hard to recruit and retain diverse workers. So we’ve really got to grow our own internally.”
The collaborative is taking a “cradle to career” approach by bringing together stakeholders from early childhood education, K-12 public schools, local colleges and industry leaders. Early initiatives have ranged from revamping the language used to describe job openings to thinking through creative ways to train students entering the labor market.
One such program is Blue Ridge Community College’s apprenticeship program, which pairs seniors graduating from Henderson County Public Schools with local automotive, manufacturing or business and banking companies. Apprentices are paid to work four days and attend class once a week, says Lee Anna Haney, director of marketing at Blue Ridge Community College. Tuition is free, and participants graduate with a credential in their respective fields.
As the Land of Sky collaborative moves from the planning phase to implementation, Fox sees these innovative pathways into the workforce as the way forward.
“We’re trying to talk to folks who are looking for a job and say, ‘OK, here are some resources to help upgrade your resume, and if you don’t have a four-year degree, that’s fine,’” Fox says. “Instead, let’s look at the skills that you are bringing to the table, and let’s connect you to a local company that will open the door for you.”