LEE COUNTY: Efforts to grow, train workforce highlighted in national report

Jul. 19, 2014 @ 05:03 AM

A report released Thursday by the private N.C. Budget and Tax Center called for more efforts to improve workforce training and development, predicting dire consequences for the state's employment picture if nothing changes. Locally, however, the announcement might not seem so dramatic.

"By 2020, 61 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require some kind of postsecondary training or education," noted a statement from the non-partisan Budget and Tax Center, a branch of the N.C. Justice Center. "Unless the state puts more resources into creating a skilled, well-educated workforce, it will continue to fall behind the rest of the nation in career opportunities and family income."

Lee County recently was among just 35 counties the National Association of Counties (NACO) highlighted in a report on economic development. It was one of eight recognized specifically for excellence in workforce development and training for both high school students and existing workers.

"That's a real feather in the cap, for the county, to be recognized as one of the eight in the country that shows a lot of innovation in workforce development," said Bud Marchant, president of Central Carolina Community College.

The accolades also came just after local leaders selected a CEO, Rodger Sauls, for the county's new public-private economic development and recruiting agency, the Lee County Partnership for Prosperity. Good workforce development opportunities often are regarded as good corporate recruiting tools as well.

"We want him to focus on growth — not just out there getting new companies, but helping existing companies expand and grow. … Maybe get us back to where we were in the mid-90s, which is when we were really booming,” said Jim Womack, a Lee County commissioner who also served on the committee that hired Sauls to lead the new effort,

Yet the county would never have been honored for its strides in workforce development if the workforce didn't need significant help. Many officials, including Marchant and Womack, have long spoken about a local skills gap, in which unemployment is high even though jobs are available — a seeming contradiction caused when many people who lost jobs don't have the training or education to find a new position.

Although such troubles are indeed present here — Lee County had one of the state's highest unemployment rates for years and is still above the state and national averages for unemployment — they're far from atypical.

"Workforce challenges are at the top of the county economic development agenda," the NACO concluded after surveying nearly 500 counties nationwide, including Lee County.

In that survey, more than 80 percent of county leaders said unemployment or underemployment is a major economic challenge for their area. Unemployment was followed closely in the survey by a shortage of skilled workers (74 percent) and the inability to attract and retain a young workforce (73 percent).

The NACO was optimistic about Lee County's future, however, due in large part to various partnerships among the county, public schools, Central Carolina Community College and local businesses. The report concluded that such partnerships have allowed the county to retain existing businesses and industries while also preparing a good base for the future.

Marchant said CCCC made the concrete choice to continue focusing on technical training even as many community colleges shifted their focus years ago to helping students transfer to four-year universities. He said that decision will be regarded as the right one in the future.

"Manufacturing is coming back to the United States, and we are in the perfect place," Marchant said. "We have a good geographical location, and we are also very well prepared."

He said CCCC's Innovation Center, a training facility that local businesses and students can use to learn manufacturing skills, has helped immensely. Marchant said it kept Sanford's Caterpillar plant from shifting jobs to South Carolina several years ago, and the training facility — funded by the state, county and private investors — also has led to a groundbreaking apprenticeship program for high school students, as well as a $28 million expansion by Caterpillar.

"The county really did step up to the plate in providing that," Marchant said. "And that has really been a phenomenal success."

The NACO agreed, writing in its report that other counties ought to note how building something like the Innovation Center has helped build a better future for workers, businesses and the county in general. According to the report, 950 individuals from two dozen organizations had logged more than 2,700 hours of training there as of May.

"Training the current workforce with the Innovation Center and building a pipeline for a future workforce with the Caterpillar apprenticeship program and the Central Carolina Works project, the county stands to gain a strategic advantage, both in the long run and short term," the NACO wrote.