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Perspective | Our region’s low unemployment rate means incredible challenges and opportunities

Henderson and Buncombe counties have the lowest unemployment rates in North Carolina. For 52 consecutive months, this region has had the lowest unemployment rate of any region in the state. Nearly all occupational sectors — including manufacturing, construction, health services, education, professional and business services, and financial services — showed positive job growth in the past year. Educational attainment in Henderson and Buncombe is higher than the state average.

But we still have an incredible challenge facing the “Land of Sky” region of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania counties.

A talent survey conducted across the 10-county western North Carolina region by the Asheville Chamber tells us that our employers will add another 12,700 to 26,700 jobs over the next three years. Of all the industries, manufacturing is expected to grow the most in the next three years, adding as many as 7,500 new jobs. Our region is ripe with job growth — adding much-needed strength to our economy. We have opportunities that keep coming, but filling all of these jobs remains a challenge.   

Not only is there an issue of quantity, but often, there is a disconnect between what colleges offer and what employers need. Employers continue to automate and implement new technologies and processes, and with those improvements comes the need for our colleges and educational institutions to ensure that our students and graduates are adaptable to changing technologies and skills.

What do we do? The Land of Sky Regional Council is working on just that. Land of Sky is a multi-county, local government, planning and development organization with a mission to provide creative regional solutions to relevant and emerging issues in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania counties while providing a standard of excellence in the delivery of federal, state, and regional services for our member communities.

On Tuesday, Aug. 20, I had the privilege to be part of an important panel discussion at the NC Chamber’s Workforce and Education Conference representing the Land of Sky Region along with Biltmore Farms’ Ben Teague, Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Dr. Michael Dempsey, and Asheville City Schools’ Dr. Sherry Hicks.

We were given the opportunity to speak about this urgent workforce problem facing our region. The unfilled, high-skill, high-paying jobs and large achievement gaps in our region are on track to grow. To address this issue, the Land of Sky Regional Council is working to increase educational attainment — and narrow the skills gap.

Growing companies in our region are looking for workers with an associate degree or professional certification/industry-recognized credential. This opens the door for our community colleges to help fill this gap.

Aligning post-secondary attainment with the demands of employers remains our No. 1 priority and No. 1 challenge.

As education, business and government leaders across our region, we must work together to help predict, shape, and prepare for the future. Together, we must help guide education curriculum that integrates the newest innovation in processes, technologies, equipment, and skills. We must conduct training and education on businesses’ sites. We must develop apprenticeships driven by our companies’ workforce needs.

There is exciting progress happening right here in Henderson County. Blue Ridge Community College, in partnership with Henderson County Public Schools, Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, and our industry partners, is proud to be part of an exciting opportunity for local students and employers: the Made in Henderson County Apprenticeship Program. This program is a premier opportunity for high school graduates to get a jump start on a professional career with local advanced manufacturing employers.

Over the course of three semesters, students can maximize earning potential and gain valuable skills and experience through on-the-job training. At the end of the program, students will have earned a certificate in Mechatronics Engineering Technology as an Industrial Manufacturing Production Technician from Blue Ridge Community College at no cost to the student.

In simple terms, the students spend one day a week in class at Blue Ridge Community College and the rest of the week getting real-world, hands-on experience working at one of the host facilities. After three semesters, they walk away from the program with a Mechatronics Engineering Certificate (debt-free) and a job offer. It is a huge win-win for the student and the employer. Fifty percent of our manufacturers are seeking candidates with apprenticeship experience for their future workforce. 

We must continue to think differently. We must think together, no matter our industry or sector. We are proud to be doing our part for educational attainment and closing the skills gap in our region. We are also pleased that our goals go hand in hand with the statewide educational attainment goal put forth by myFutureNC this year. I have seen initiatives come and go, but myFutureNC is one of the most impactful. Western North Carolina is doing its part to move the needle. 

Laura Leatherwood

Laura B. Leatherwood, Ed.D., is the president of Blue Ridge Community College. Leatherwood was selected as the 2022 President of the Year by the NC Community College System. Prior to Blue Ridge, she served for 17 years in various roles at Haywood Community College. Dr. Leatherwood holds a doctorate degree in university and community college leadership, a master’s degree in human resource development, and a bachelor’s degree in business law, all from Western Carolina University.