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A growing industrial region — as long as workers can be found

 VinFast's VF 8, a five-passenger all-electric SUV, one of the vehicles that would be built at the planned Chatham County site.
Rusty Jacobs, WUNC
VinFast's VF 8, a five-passenger all-electric SUV, one of the vehicles that would be built at the planned Chatham County site.

Several high-tech companies have announced they’re expanding in the region known as the Carolina Core, which stretches from the Triad southeast through the middle of the state to Fayetteville.

Finding people to work at these companies could be a challenge, as manufacturing jobs have been among the hardest to fill in recent years.

“These jobs and this, all the development that comes with it, the restaurants, the additional housing, all of those things, they will provide an opportunity for the citizens that live in this area that can really change lives for generations,” says Mike Fox, president and CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, who spoke about the impact that new facilities by Toyota, VinFast, Wolfspeed, and others could have on the area and the challenge of filling those positions.

“These are great paying jobs and have good benefits, and can really change the fortunes of a family,” he says. “People can get a job where they can afford for their kids to pursue whatever dream they want to do, whether it be go to college, or start their own business, those kinds of things. And so that's what I think we have coming. And that's a tremendous opportunity for the entire region.”

North Carolina added more than 100,000 people from April 2020 to July 2021, according to census figures, making it the fourth-fastest growing state in the nation.

“We think those demographics are advantageous for us,” Fox says. “And we have a robust Workforce Development Program in cooperation with our community colleges, and our universities as well. A great example of that is the aviation sector that has developed around PTI (Piedmont Triad International Airport) and Smith Reynolds in this area and the work that the local community colleges, and North Carolina A&T State University and GTCC (Guilford Technical Community College) have this aviation program that has been remarkably successful.”

GTCC’s program has received millions in state and federal funding for its apprenticeship programs, and hundreds of students are enrolled. The five-year apprenticeship program allows students to work while earning certification in their field.

Fox says expanding programs like those will help develop the next manufacturing labor force here.

“There's a theme of transportation technology that is not only developing with these new jobs but also is already here, in existing employers, like Volvo trucks,” he says. “They have EV trucks, and they have autonomous trucks that they've been developing and testing in our region. Thomas Built Buses with their electric buses, and the technology the drone technology that AeroX is working on at Smith Reynolds and in the Winston-Salem area — all those things predate the big announcements we've had recently. But they are certainly a part of the transportation sector and really the future of transportation as opposed to the historical past.”

Fox says immigration reform is needed to help pair job vacancies with those who have the skills to fill them.

“I think every employer would tell you right now that yeah, they have they probably have vacancies, and that workforce is a challenge,” he says. “We feel like that that is not only a statewide problem, it is a national problem. It is an international problem ... We're fortunate in North Carolina, and that I think we're viewed as a welcoming and diverse state. We want you to come to North Carolina and contribute to our state and enjoy all the benefits of our state and it doesn't matter where you came from. We have a large immigrant population in North Carolina."

Fox says many employers would say that reforming the immigration system would be beneficial.

"We need to be able to take jobs that need to be filled and match them to people that have that skill set and want to work regardless of whether they live here in North Carolina currently, or they're from somewhere else," he says.

Fox says Piedmont Triad Partnership doesn’t have a particular policy position on immigration.

“But our members are certainly all interested in seeing the workforce pool be able to get larger, and immigration is one part of that,” he says.

Much of the manufacturing expansion work has just begun, so the companies have a few years to find all the workers they’ll eventually need. Fox says a phasing in of the workforce will make things easier.

“That means we don't have to instantly come up with 10,000 skilled people,” he says. “We have some time to get those people in the pipeline to give them the training that they may need, or have additional people move to the area.”

This story was originally published by WFDD.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Paul Garber / WFDD