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Perils And Promise: Steering Workers Down A New Career Pathway

Operator work on infusion pharmaceutical industry
An operator works on infusion pharmaceutical industry

Vance County no longer has the strong economic based it used to have in textile manufacturing.  Today, it’s becoming more and more clear one of the best workforce opportunities for workers here is in advanced manufacturing.  But like many in rural communities, Vance County residents will likely have to leave home for these jobs.

In our series “Perils & Promise: Educating North Carolina’s Rural Students." we visit an advanced manufacturing roundtable discussion on jobs and hiring trends.

It was hard getting a space in the parking lot or even a seat in the meeting room at Butner Town Hall.  A very attentive crowd was on hand to hear what Human Resource managers had to say about hiring trends in advanced manufacturing and skilled trades.

Eric Breit with the Capital Area Workforce Development Board moderated the meeting.

“We are working to create regional career pathways, recognizing we are a single labor market to some degree," said Breit.

The state Commerce Department has divided North Carolina into eight Prosperity Zones.  The North Central Region covers 15 counties, including struggling rural counties like Vance, Granville and Warren. But the “zone” also includes Wake, Durham and Orange counties, home of the fastest-growing job markets in the state.

“What do you consider your labor market, to the extent you know where do your employees live? Give us a broad brush," said Breit, while organizing Post-Its on the wall.

Companies like Avintiv, Bell & Howell and Bio Merieux began to open up.

A spokesman for Parata Systems, specializing in robotic dispensers for pharmacies, says they’re building a new facility in Durham.  Right now, their workforce comes from Durham County, the Apex-area of Wake County and Johnston County.

A representative from Dill Air Controls in Oxford says they have manufacturing workers who commute from Henderson and Roxboro.  But their salaried workers mostly come from Durham. 

Vanessia Alvarado is the HR Manager at Dill Air Controls.  Alvarado says she’s glad she made the meeting because Dill is in a pickle.

“Seventy-one percent of our workforce is over the age of 50 and we have a training curve on our high demand jobs of 18 months, so we need to be filling that pipeline." said Alvarado.

To help combat the aging workforce or “silver tsunami,” Alvarado says her company is taking advantage of an apprenticeship program for high school students called NC TAP, the Triangle Apprenticeship Program.  They’re looking for candidates from Vance and Granville counties.

Willa Clark is the CTE, Career and Technical Education Director for Vance Public Schools.

“Career Pathways is what’s bringing us together, that’s good for students.  That gives them, we know they will have a set of skills they can use and transfer," said Clark.

And companies like Waste Industries out of Raleigh is growing.  HR Manager Key Winkler says they are willing to train anybody who can handle a wrench.

“We’ll move those individuals who are willing to move to where the work is at," said Winkler.

And Winkler says they will hire entry level workers right out of high school, and mentor them.

“We understand that sometimes where they may live there’s not the openings that they are looking for as far as career," said Winkler.  "But if they are willing and they want to go to another location we’ll help them get there.”  

The folks at Bell and Howell also say they’re hiring, but it hasn’t been easy, according to Joe Zuech, VP of manufacturing.

“Since we make factory automation equipment which is automated machines and kind of like robotics type of equipment, we have trouble finding people that have Mechatronics background, which is a combination of electronics, mechanical skill-set and computer skill-set," said Zuech.

That’s where community colleges have been helpful. Zuech says you don’t have to have a four-year degree but workers have to have some post high school education.

Workforce Development leaders in the Kerr-Tar, Durham and Capital Area put together this inaugural gathering.  They’re working to prove the critics wrong, that prosperity can penetrate rural areas of the state.  They just need a little help from their urban friends.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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