Commerce chief: Employees of tomorrow need more training

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Issues with China have had a significant impact on North Carolina’s economy recently, according to N.C. Commerce Secretary Anthony M. Copeland.

“Pre-tarrifs, we were selling $140 million worth of tobacco a year to China from North Carolina. Post-tariffs, we’re selling zero to China, but hopefully we’re going to get that all back in play and we’ll get those markets back,” Copeland said Tuesday during the year’s first installment of the Wilson Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Forum. “So international trade does affect us locally.”

Copeland said the coronavirus also has affected the state, especially manufacturers who purchase parts from China. He said some companies have had to stop production and temporarily close.

“One of the things that shocked me was when I asked Dr. (Mandy) Cohen, the secretary of Health and Human Services, when the coronavirus was going away,” he said. “She said it is like the normal flu in that it’ll go down during the summer, but it will be back next year because it is never going away.”

He added that it compounds issues already posed by the trade policy.

“I don’t think anyone has any idea how this will affect us or when it will be over,” he said.

Copeland was the keynote speaker for the “Closer Look” luncheon at the chamber. He covered a variety of topics including workforce development. He said 75% of rural employers advertising for jobs receive no applicants, noting 20 of the state’s 100 counties represent 80% of the population. Efforts like the Regional Advanced Manufacturing Pipeline for eastern North Carolina — an initiative with eight community colleges to train people with the hard and soft skills needed to work for area manufacturers — are a step in the right direction toward addressing workforce shortages.

“Community colleges have changed drastically. At one point, there was a glass ceiling after two years and a stigma perhaps attached to the ability to do other things, but now it is possible to get a four-year degree with the right counseling and the right training,” Copeland said. “We’re going to see all kinds of changes in education. Not everyone needs a four-year degree, but we expect by 2030 that 60% of all people — maybe 65% ­— will need to have a degree larger than high school or community college. Upscaling is an incredible thing going on with companies.”

It’s crucial for prospective employees to pursue training, especially in advanced manufacturing.

“Wilson has always been on the forefront of tackling a disruptive economy,” Copeland said. “You’ve got to continue to do that.”