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How a Resurgent Manufacturing Industry is Driving Home the Importance of a Work-Ready Workforce for Western North Carolina

Since the days when the first railroads began to cut paths into Western North Carolina in the late-1800s, bringing with them commerce and jobs, the region benefitted from a century of growth as a hotbed of U.S. manufacturing. During and after World War II, area workshops and factories increased their contributions to a national economy experiencing an unprecedented surge in productivity. In the 1980s, however, these trends shifted, and western communities began to see a marked decrease in manufacturing jobs. Now, thanks to new developments in advanced manufacturing, areas like Buncombe County are bearing witness to a manufacturing resurgence. And in this week’s edition of the NC Chamber Foundation’s ongoing #WorkReadyWednesday campaign, we’re exploring how local job creators, workforce development coordinators and education leaders are working together to foster a workforce that can fill the growing needs of the area’s manufacturers.

Employers like NC Chamber member GE Aviation have been spearheading this resurgence with the development of new advanced manufacturing facilities, including the company’s 2-year-old ceramic matrix composite facility in Buncombe County. And job creators are also among those feeling the brunt of a talent development system that has so far struggled to produce the skilled workers needed to fully support such a resurgence. In a recent article from The Mountain Xpress, Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, explains: “Many parts of the workforce are aging; a lot of younger individuals are not as willing to consider a manufacturing career. If we can’t supply the talent, our local companies aren’t going to be able to grow and thrive here.”

As the successful initiatives we have covered in past #WorkReadyWednesday updates are proving, a major key to solving this skills gap is getting local leaders supporting programs geared toward making today’s students and other job-seekers more aware of the career opportunities available in advanced manufacturing, and more engaged in the types of training they will need to develop the skills to pursue those careers. As the Mountain Xpress article notes, education systems in Buncombe County and surrounding areas have already been driving toward this objective. The STEM School, UNC Asheville’s joint engineering program with N.C. State University, and local community college AB-Tech all offer a bevy of opportunities for local high school and college students to pursue expertise and accreditation in advanced manufacturing fields. And for their part, employers like GE Aviation are showing a clear willingness to train employees on-the-job with the essential skills they will need to thrive in modern manufacturing.

With the Mountain Xpress article noting a recent growth in manufacturing wages and a growing interest in manufacturing among local job-seekers – particularly younger job-seekers – it’s clear that manufacturing is again on the upswing in Western North Carolina. The NC Chamber Foundation is excited to see these connections being made to facilitate greater collaboration between industry, education and local government to ensure this resurgence continues well into the future. Could the next step for Western North Carolina be an established partnership between local business leaders and educational institutions to support a full-fledged manufacturing apprenticeship program, as we have seen in so many other North Carolina communities? Only the future will tell for sure – and the future is looking bright for manufacturing in Western North Carolina.

The NC Chamber Foundation is leading an effort to make North Carolina a top ten state for workforce readiness and stability, and the number one state for apprenticeships in the nation. We are currently in the beginning stages of developing a new report on workforce readiness that will enable the business community to be a driving force in achieving those goals. If you would like to learn how your company can become engaged with these efforts, email Cassi Zumbiel, policy development manager at the NC Chamber Foundation. Remember to follow along on Twitter using the hashtag #WorkReadyWednesday – and tune in two weeks from now for the next update in our ongoing campaign to support a fully work-ready workforce in our state.

Gary J. Salamido
Vice President, Government Affairs
North Carolina Chamber