"This opportunity’s never going to come this way again. It’s never come anywhere I’ve ever seen before." – Consultant discussing N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, N.C.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Economic development consultant Mac Holladay delivered a nasty dose of castor oil to local leaders in Cabarrus (5.8 percent unemployment) and Rowan (6.4 percent jobless rate) counties on Tuesday:

The North Carolina Research Campus being built by billionaire David Murdock on the site of a mammoth Pillowtex textile plant in Kannapolis is going to create thousands of jobs but those two counties may not have enough educated workers to fill the positions.

Why? Lack of education coupled with a lack of desire to secure the skills needed to win a knowledge worker position.

“This opportunity’s never going to come this way again,” said Holladay, according to Steve Huffman of the Salisbury Post, in remarks delivered almost five years to the day Pillowtex shut down, throwing 4,800 workers out of their jobs. That sad event remains the largest mass layoff in N.C. history.

“It’s never come anywhere I’ve ever seen before,” he warned.

Holladay runs Market Street Services in Atlanta. Cabarrus and Rowan counties hired him to study the economic impact of the biotech project. The $1.5 billion campus being built on the site of a shut-down textile plant has the potential to create more than 5,000 jobs by 2012. Those jobs would pay an average wage of $58,663.

Longer term, the job numbers look even better: 18,136 jobs by 2032.

He noted that the Research Campus is projected to create 18,136 jobs by 2032. Of that number, 13,616 jobs will be in Cabarrus County while 4,520 will be created in Rowan County.

Yet, according to Holladay, many people will not have the education needed to win those jobs.

“The thing that’s fascinating about your recovery, the jobs are going to be there,” he said, according to Huffman’s report. Then came the $58,663-average-salary-question:

“Will you have the people to fill them?”

A comment about the Campus not being built to produce more jobs for nearby Charlotte drew some laughs, Huffman noted.

Nervous ones, I bet.

Holladay’s “Regional Workforce Assessment” plan said the Research Campus will need people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees with an emphasis on science and math.

Today’s – and especially tomorrow’s – biotech industry is not for assembly line workers, as hard working and valuable as those people have been and always will be. Rather, even biotech lab workers need special training and additional education. To its credit, North Carolina has launched a statewide biotech worker training program.

However the Kannapolis campus isn’t for drug manufacturing plants. It is designed to foster research, development and discovery.

Brain power will drive the Research Campus.

In Rowan County, however, as Huffman noted and the local paper reported, only 14 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree. Some 23 percent of residents didn’t graduate from high school.

The Charlotte Business Journal headline captured Holladay’s challenge this way: “Is Kannapolis prepared for new future?”

Here’s the headline from the Charlotte Observer: “Study: Not enough locals for biotech. Research says lack of education will keep many from getting jobs on Kannapolis campus.”

Holladay told the county leaders that fewer than 25 percent of the workers who were laid off at Pillowtex took full advantage of training opportunities offered by Rowan Cabarrus Community College.

He then delivered a bone-chilling remark:

"It speaks to the historic culture that does not value education.”

Let’s hope the good people of Rowan and Cabarrus are being underestimated, that they will fight to win the new jobs being created by Murdock and company.

Further, let’s hope the good people of our state embrace the opportunities being created by the state’s biotech and high-tech industries. These are growing despite an economic slowdown.

North Carolina continues to have an opportunity to transform itself from tobacco, furniture and textiles to a knowledge industry state.

The opportunity may never come again.