County, city officials hear strategic employment plan

As of the most recent statistics, McDowell County is tied with three other counties with the second lowest unemployment rate in the entire state. In September, McDowell had a jobless rate of 2.5 percent which means 542 in this county were considered unemployed in September out of a local work force of 21,334.

But what do we know about our local work force? How can employers solve the problem of finding enough workers to fill new jobs? And how can more unemployed people find good and fulfilling careers here in McDowell?

A new plan that seeks to address these challenges existing with our local work force has been in the works long before McDowell reached the 2.5 percent jobless rate. The goal is to identify those in the community who are and aren’t working and to understand how to fully maximize the local workforce.

Last week, Chuck Abernathy, director of the McDowell Economic Development Association (MEDA), and Jerry Broome with NC Works and member of the Workforce Development Board, gave presentations to both the McDowell County Commissioners and the Marion City Council. Their presentation outlined some of the facts about the local workforce and identified strategies to solving some issues that exist.

They’ve been working on this plan for more than a year. In the fall of 2017, representatives of MEDA and the Region C Workforce Development Board, started talking about the employment needs of McDowell County. Region C is a council of local governments in McDowell, Cleveland, Polk and Rutherford counties.

By that time, McDowell was going through an “employment crisis,” which was caused by a record low jobless rate coupled with a high industry demand for new workers.

“A lot of industries wanted to expand and we wondered where are going to find these folks?” said Abernathy.

In order to address the situation, Abernathy, Broome and the Region C board started taking a closer look at the state of McDowell’s workforce. McDowell has a strong workforce partnership, consisting of not only MEDA and the Region C board but also regional industry (primarily manufacturing and healthcare), the county school system and McDowell Technical Community College. In recent years, this partnership has accomplished:

• The 50,000-square-foot Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center

• The award-winning McDowell County Workforce Pipeline Committee

• McDowell recognized as an ACT Work Ready Community

• Multiple middle and high school programs designed to connect students with industry

Starting with this baseline, MEDA and the Region C board realized the next step was to take a closer look at the county’s current workforce in relation to the rest of McDowell. The total population of McDowell County is 45,013, according to the latest census.

Some of the major statistical findings were:

• 7,299 people in McDowell are older than 65 and not in the workforce.

• 1,688 people in McDowell are between the ages of 25-64 and do not work because of home responsibilities.

• 715 people in McDowell are between the ages of 16 and 24 and are neither working or in school. Abernathy and Broome said we have to reach out to these young people and find a way for them to become members of the workforce or encourage them to continue their education.

• 1,255 individuals do not participate in the workforce due to illness or disability.

• After accounting for employment, unemployment, age, institutionalization and military service, there are an estimated 4,328 people ages 25-64 who are not participating in the local workforce.

• An estimated 657 people work part-time and desire to work full-time.

• An estimated 2,895 people work part-time by choice.

• An estimated 1,825 people fit the definition of the working poor.

• An estimated 4,884 people work outside of McDowell County. Abernathy and Broome said we have to find ways for these folks to get good employment inside McDowell.

After hearing these statistics, Commission Chairman David Walker said, “That is really breaking down the population of McDowell County.”

The strategic employment plan contains a number of major recommendations.

The first is about transportation in the county. It calls for a continued analysis of the county’s transportation needs in relation to workforce development and training. It also calls for the creation of designated employment routes for workers and increased access to McDowell Tech.

The second concerns child care. County DSS officials estimate that if more funding were available, they could accommodate the children on the waiting list for child care. The plan calls for DSS and McDowell County to explore the idea of a public-private partnership to provide child care services for employees.

Another major recommendation is about workforce migration. This includes a “Work in McDowell” initiative to promote available jobs within the county and would include a cost-benefit analysis of commuting.

The other major recommendation is about substance abuse. The plan is to increase the partnership between the McDowell Health Coalition and the McDowell County Workforce Pipeline Committee to tackle the serious opioid and substance abuse problem.

The plan has a series of other recommendations for the school system, the community college, DSS, the Senior Center and various local agencies.

Both MEDA and the Region C board intend to continue with this initiative and follow through on the recommendations. Both the McDowell County Commission and the Marion City Council were introduced to Brandon Ruppe with the Region C Workforce Development Board. Ruppe will continue the work of Broome, who is retiring.

“It is the goal of both parties to expand the scope of the project to facilitate regional application in neighboring Polk, Rutherford and Cleveland counties,” reads a written statement. “The issues of workforce involvement, connecting workers with industry and providing required training to workers will not be going away anytime soon. It is the intent for the McDowell Strategic Employment Plan Initiative to serve as a roadmap and guide for the continued enhancement and expansion of the economy in McDowell County. Ideally, the process followed and initiative undertaken would be used as a model for each county in North Carolina, as many of the issues faced by McDowell County are statewide in nature.”

Both the McDowell Commissioners and the Marion City Council members said they support this effort and hope that our local workforce can be strengthened and ready to face the challenges of the future. Both county and city officials will send letters of support.

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