North Carolina’s Talent Show is Serious Business

Monday, September 6, 2021
Jeff DeBellis

On July 20, North Carolina Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders unveiled the State’s new economic development strategic plan. In some ways, the First in Talent plan may look fairly familiar – a positive, catchy title; an introduction from the Secretary highlighting our economic challenges, hopes, and opportunities; and broad goals for improving our businesses, workforce, and communities. However, the typical state economic development plan this is not.

Formulation of the plan began in 2019 but required a reassessment of conditions, challenges, and opportunities resulting from the pandemic. While the world certainly changed due to Covid-19, talent and skill have consistently proven to be a key driver and differentiator for economic success. Individuals earning high wages prior to the pandemic saw only a small decline in employment during 2020, while those with low- or middle-wage employment were much harder hit. This has contributed to an unemployment rate that remains elevated and a labor force participation rate that sits below pre-pandemic levels – adding to employers’ hiring difficulties. At the same time, relatively high unemployment still exists among many historically-marginalized groups - populations that can be tapped to expand employers’ options. Equitable opportunities and inclusive solutions are no longer just admirable goals but are imperative to state economic growth.

Ten years ago, a national survey of corporate executives listed “Availability of Skilled Labor” as the seventh-most identified factor of importance in the site selection process – behind issues like tax rates, incentives, and labor costs. Today, skilled labor availability is the clear leader. Thus, the First in Talent plan offers strategies to advance the skills needed of the existing workforce, like increasing attainment of high-quality credentials and participation in work-based learning. Additionally, the plan provides solutions for drawing more workers into the labor force by overcoming challenges to accessing affordable childcare and enhancing opportunities for those with employment barriers. Subsequent blog posts will dive into the details of these opportunities.    

Talent, as defined in the plan, is not exclusive to workers receiving a paycheck. Two thirds of the plan aim to empower businesses, entrepreneurs, and communities to grow and attract the talent needed to be competitive and successful. Some solutions are foundational, like program and policy supports to create productive work environments and the means for businesses to increase wages, or physical infrastructure, healthcare access, transportation systems, and leadership capacity for communities.  Other strategies are designed to ensure more equitable opportunities for talent to thrive across the whole state by bolstering small businesses, women and minority entrepreneurship, and broadband adoption.

The First in Talent plan is the first economic development plan in over a generation to be drafted without direction from a state-level economic development board (dissolved in 2014) and also subject to  a new statute governing its formation. This created an opportunity for a new approach – one driven by a thorough economic analysis and extensive local and regional input (including from many NCEDA members across the state) led by a collaborative team of faculty and staff at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Government and Department of City and Regional Planning.  

Unique times call for unique solutions. While attention to workforce and skills may not be novel, incorporating such a variety of components into an economic development plan is, at least for North Carolina. Over the next few months, further details of the strategic plan will be advanced, partnerships will be forged and strengthened, and implementation tactics will be laid out. Whether it’s advocating for the adoption of the plan’s goals, helping companies source applicants from underutilized labor pools, or working with businesses to implement family-friendly policies, NCEDA members have a critical role to play in the implementation of the First in Talent Plan. No matter what the future holds, North Carolina’s talent is worth betting on.

To join the Department of Commerce and our existing team of public and private partners in helping make North Carolina First in Talent, email Emily Roach, Director of Policy and Strategic Planning –