Educators, Employers Cultivating Skilled Workforce

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Educators, Employers Cultivating Skilled Workforce

Most of the thriving US industries of today aren’t like the industries of old. Methodologies like Kaizen and Lean Six Sigma are transforming quality and safety standards and it is commonplace to see multi-million dollar machinery and robotics equipment across a clean, bright manufacturing landscape. Mike Walden, a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and Extension Economist at NC State University, has studied the change in industry and makes the case that new skills are needed in today’s workplace.

The Challenge

Most of the thriving US industries of today aren’t like the industries of old. Methodologies like Kaizen and Lean Six Sigma are transforming quality and safety standards and it is commonplace to see multi-million dollar machinery and robotics equipment across a clean, bright manufacturing landscape. Mike Walden, a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and Extension Economist at NC State University, has studied the change in industry and makes the case that new skills are needed in today’s workplace.

“Information technology has spawned entire new industries, rendered many older industries obsolete, and has replaced ‘brawn-power’ with ‘brain-power’ as the most significant worker characteristic. What’s more important now is how workers think, solve problems, and create new solutions. This means college-educated workers, particularly in the scientific, technological, and management fields, are the hottest commodity for companies,” said Walden. That ‘college-educated’ worker can be an individual with a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree from a local community/technical college.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate currently sits at 8.8% but employers are still having difficulty filling open positions. Across the nation there is a mid-skills gap. Job seekers often fail to meet the minimum requirements of mid-skills jobs or possess more experience and skills which make mid-skills jobs undesirable. A recent report conducted by AAR, Inc. (a Chicago-based global defense/aerospace company) echoes this notion. 

“The mid-skills gap has reached a boiling point in key business sectors such as aerospace and manufacturing and is in need of breakthrough solutions. Mid-skills describe highly specialized mechanical, technical and production careers that may require industry or government certification but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree,” the report says. 

The study adds that “there needs to be a renewed commitment and appreciation by government, education institutions and nonprofits for teaching and promoting applied skills and trades, and the private sector must lead the way. As a nation, we need to get back to basics by teaching skills – starting in middle school – and building upon them as a part of life-long learning.”

What We are Doing

In North Carolina’s Eastern Region (NCER) Employers have echoed the remarks of Walden, the “AAR Mid-Skills Gap in Middle America” study and of those surveyed by Area Development Online in which 86% of business executives considered availability of skilled labor an important factor in a site location decision. Such overwhelming data provides economic developers with a clear avenue for focused community capacity development. 

To combat the skilled worker shortfall and to fill the talent pipeline, the region has taken a comprehensive and innovative approach to workforce development in collaboration with employers, community colleges and public schools. Through its WorkReady Communities and STEM East initiatives, employers are finding the qualified talent they need and job seekers are going back to work.

The Impact

Perhaps no program in the region has been more beneficial to employers than the WorkKeys Profiling and Career Readiness Certificate (CRC). Based on ACT’s WorkKeys system, the CRC assesses job seekers’ foundational skills to insure they are ready to work in today’s technology-driven environment. Making sure workers have the correct job-specific foundational skills gives employers confidence that job applicants are prepared for-on-the-job training and higher level skill development.  Companies that make the effort to develop WorkKeys Job Profiles are the best positioned to find the right job applicant that possesses a CRC.

“As an employer, our company understands the value of a well-trained workforce. We have had several of our jobs profiled, and the resulting use of CRC scores has helped us put the right people in the right jobs. It has also helped us see where our employees’ weak spots were, and that knowledge helped us design our in-house training to correct those deficiencies,” said Chris Martin, Mt. Olive Pickle Human Resources Director. 

To date, NCER has provided more than $1.2 million to support the advancement of WorkKeys Profiles/CRCs and has experienced tremendous success. The region went from 1,000 CRCs awarded per year to over 10,000 CRCs per year in 4 a year period. Through the diligent work of a network of 13 counties, 11 community colleges and 3 workforce development boards, 135 companies now utilize the CRC in their employment practices and nearly 45,000 people now possess a CRC – about 10% of the regional labor force. The region boasts a higher percentage of the labor force, and the highest absolute number of people, possessing a CRC than any region in NC. 

“By identifying the skills needed in those jobs, they have been able to…identify the appropriate level of skill that we need, that should show success for us in the future,” said Leo Corbin, Attends Healthcare Products Human Resources Manager (Video:

“The CRC gives job seekers a clear understanding of the skills employers’ value for specific jobs and allows employers to hire with confidence,” said Kathy Howard, NCER Vice President for Workforce and Client Development, “and some of our companies have experienced significant decreases in employee turnover as a result.”

The groundwork laid through promotion of the CRC allowed the region to pilot a successful WorkReady Communities (WRC) initiative in the region for replication state-wide. Funded by the NC Rural Center, WRC seeks to elevate the region’s workforce into its #1 competitive advantage. The program assesses and awards communities that meet WorkReady thresholds, evaluates the standards proposed for certification, motivates rural county participation, introduces the WorkReady Initiative to employers and captures the lessons learned at the regional level for application across the state.

Communities can earn the designation by achieving certain standards, displaying their commitment to workforce excellence. The community partnership must receive a pledge from 10 of the top 20 largest employers to utilize the Career Readiness Certificate (CRC) in employment practices. Additionally, a minimum of 5% of the labor force must possess a CRC and the community must increase the high school graduation rate by 1% annually with a minimum qualifying rate of 70%.

“We believe it was critical to invest in this program because it helps answer questions an incoming or existing company has about the region’s ability to provide a qualified workforce, the tools needed to train the workforce and the partnerships in place to answer any workforce related issue. The generous grant from the Rural Center enabled our communities to achieve great results – the outlook is promising to use this model statewide,” said Howard.

Already, 4 counties have achieved a WorkReady designation: Edgecombe (Tarboro), Lenoir (Kinston), Pitt (Greenville) and Wayne (Goldsboro) Counties are the first in the state to be certified. Several additional counties in the region are on the brink of meeting or exceeding the WRC criteria. 

A website ( has been created to serve employers and job seekers as part of the WRC program. The site includes a job portal which allows employers to post jobs and identify job seekers who possess a CRC. Individuals that possess a CRC also have the ability to search for jobs and apply for available positions. 

Aligning Workforce & STEM Education Initiatives

Yet another component of the workforce development continuum is the STEM East ( initiative. STEM East was piloted by NC STEM, Lenoir Schools, Lenoir Committee of 100, NCER, and area business leaders in 2009. With additional support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Battelle, Golden LEAF Foundation and private companies, a regional program was initiated. STEM East is building upon the success of the Career Readiness Certificate and WorkReady Communities programs through a public/private network that supports the entire education and workforce pipeline.   

Since 2008, the predominant job growth within the region has been within economic clusters associated with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM): aerospace (Spirit AeroSystems, UTC Kidde), life science (BD, DSM Pharma, Metrics, Hospira), health care (Vidant Medical, Nash General), and various types of advanced manufacturing (ASMO, Cummins, Superior Essex, Bridgestone/Firestone).  Even the growing, historically labor intensive, value-added agriculture (and food processing) sector is increasing its demand for persons with the ability to perform advanced manufacturing jobs.

STEM East is making use of the Covey methodology, “begin with the end in mind,” to respond to the employment needs within these evolving clusters.  By surveying the immediate employment needs and identifying emerging career sectors, STEM East works to align education and workforce development pathways to match the economic climate. Infusing this work early in the education system allows students to see relevancy in their curriculum and to establish responsible career goals. By assisting K-12 students to identify solid career pathways, STEM East is striving to increase student interest and lower the rate at which students need remediation and retraining at the college and university levels. 

By partnering with private companies, government and community organizations, K-12 schools, colleges and universities, STEM East is undertaking a number of activities: creating professional teacher training programs and student learning centers, providing regional advocacy, and identifying career pathways that are aligned to workforce needs and existing/emerging industry clusters.

“I liken it to Major League Baseball,” said Tom Greenwood, Program Director, Spirit AeroSystems. “You don’t just walk down the street and pick somebody to be your starting pitcher…there is a pipeline of experiences and leagues that lead up to the majors. Aerospace jobs are a lot like that. Whether you are a machinist running a machine or a composite technician laying up carbon fiber, or an engineer designing the next structure or an operations specialist designing new and better ways to do things, it takes really solid fundamentals in mathematics, science, engineering and technology to help us do that. Aerospace is one of those fields where STEM comes all together.” (

Although STEM East is still a young program, launched on a regional scale in 2011, results to date are dramatic: initially 5 STEM Centers in 4 school districts, a 10-20% increase in the pass rate on science exams, an 850% increase in regional Kenan Fellowships for teachers in company internships and development programs and an 105% increase in the number of students taking Algebra (Math1) within a math focused STEM Center. To date, STEM East has assisted 5 counties with securing more than $3 million in funding (enough to support 36 total STEM Centers by 2016). STEM East is now working on alignment of middle school STEM Center curricula with industry accepted CRCs and developing annual surveys with regional companies to better understand future employment needs. These achievements haven’t gone unnoticed; Executive Director, Steve Hill, has been invited to speak at conferences in Seattle, Dallas, and Washington DC and even received a visit from the Assistant Secretary for the US Department of Education. 

The impact of the region’s efforts is having a ripple effect. During a recent speaking engagement at the Civil Aviation Manufacturing conference in Charlotte, the VP for Global Business Management of LORD Corp. praised the workforce development effort in eastern NC, citing it as a replicable model that helped the Triangle-based defense/aerospace parts manufacturer quickly ramp up its workforce with qualified talent at its Erie, PA facility.

North Carolina’s Eastern region is committed to developing a skilled labor pool for existing and future industry. Building such capacity strengthens the regional economy by creating an attractive option for relocating or expanding companies and by creating sustainable employment options for job seekers.

NCER is a broad spectrum, regional economic development agency currently serving 13 counties from I-95 to the coast. For more information visit North Carolina’s Eastern Region’s website (