Elon hosts 'State of the Region' discussion that highlights growth, challenges of N.C. economy
The Piedmont Triad Partnership's 'State of the Region' event on Oct. 27 was held in partnership with the Triad Business Journal, with Elon University serving as a host sponsor.
The North Carolina economy has continued its rebound since being battered by the recession. Economic consultant Ted Abernathy detailed recent gains in manufacturing, professional and technical jobs, for a crowd of regional business leaders gathered Oct. 26 at Elon University.
But like other states, North Carolina is facing the mounting challenge of finding a skilled workforce to fill a wide variety of newly created positions, and higher education will play a key role in helping continue the momentum the state's economy now has, Abernathy said at the Piedmont Triad Partnership's State of the Region event in Schar Hall's Turner Theatre.
"You have a state business climate and a local business climate that is hard to beat," said Abernathy, managing partner of Raleigh, N.C.-based Economic Leadership. "The question is going to be the work-ready labor pool. You've got to demonstrate that you can not only grow, but also attract labor."
The event drew more than 200 guests to Elon's campus, with the main presentation followed by a reception in the Snow Family Grand Atrium to celebrate the region's "Power Players," a group of top leaders from the Triad honored by the Triad Business Journal, the Greensboro-based business media outlet that partnered with the Piedmont Triad Partnership on the event. The Piedmont Triad Partnership is a regional economic development organization that promotes the area and advocates for business growth.
Abernathy, whose consulting work takes him around the country, said the economic landscape has become increasingly competitive as states and communities consider ways to foster new business sectors and capitalize on the rebounding economy. That competition is made even stiffer by low unemployment rates, he said.
"There are so many places in America that have decided they have to reinvent themselves that competition has just gotten amazing recently," Abernathy told the crowd. "The data and the changes are overwhelming people."
Abernathy noted that until the recent disruptions caused by multiple hurricanes, the country had seen years of continuous employment growth following the financial crisis. "While we're continuing to grow, the growth has been a little slower," Abernathy said.
In North Carolina, upticks in employment in the manufacturing and professional and technical services segments of the economy have come in recent years, driven in large part by the robust growth in the major metros, such as Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham areas. The Triad — the region that contains Alamance County and Elon — has lagged behind those regions, but has still benefitted from economic growth particularly in the areas of aerospace and transportation, Abernathy said.
Workers are also yielding the benefits, Abernathy said. Beyond unemployment rates in the region that are lower than the national average, North Carolina workers have seen wage and salary growth that is outpacing the national average for at least four years, he said. "By any measure right now — wages, job growth, GDP — North Carolina is very competitive," Abernathy said.
However, the ability to find the employees to staff these new jobs as business and industries grow continues to be a challenge that will only become more difficult going forward, Abernathy said. "When we start thinking about the workforce, it is going to be the issue for the Triad and for everybody who is planning to grow," Abernathy said.
His assessment echoed that of Richard Kendall, CEO of HAECO Americas, a multinational aerospace corporation that has a significant presence in central North Carolina, particularly at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro. At its extensive complex at PTIA and manufacturing facilities elsewhere in the Triad, HAECO Americas retrofits and outfits aircraft interiors and has seen consistent growth as the airline industry has expanded.
However HAECO, like other companies, relies upon a workforce that is aging, and faces a shortage of skilled workers to fill vacant positions, Kendall told the group Thursday. "The challenge for us, of course, is that every new company that comes in, particularly those companies in our sector, will look to us as the source of employees," Kendall said. "We need some help in terms of developing a stronger feedstock for the workforce in order to supply those companies that come in."
Elon President Leo M. Lambert highlighted the role that the university is playing to educate and prepare its students for their future careers so they can make contributions not just to the economy but their local communities in a wide range of ways. Student engagement is central to the experience that Elon provides, with the university focusing on high-impact practices including mentoring, undergraduate research, study abroad, internships, the residential campus, service learning and others.
As Stan Kelly, president and CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, offered his take on how the region is positioned for growth and the roles that its business leaders are playing, he underscored the contributions Elon and other higher education institutions in the region make.
"Education is big business in this region, and you are adding people to the economy," Kelly said in reference to Elon. "We are creating growth industries because of what you and others are doing."
The Triad Business Journal's Power Players reception honored the contributions of multiple members of the Elon community. Along with President Lambert, others included in the inaugural list include Elon University trustees Allen Gant, retired CEO of Glen Raven, and David King, chairman and CEO of LabCorp, as well as Bobby Long, a member of the Elon University School of Law Advisory Board and chairman of the Piedmont Triad Charitable Foundation.