Editor’s note: The North Carolina Department of Commerce has unveiled a new strategic economic development plan for the state, and given the importance of recruiting new companies and existing company expansions to the state’s economy, WRAL TechWire is taking an in-depth look at the plan, “First in Talent,” which was released earlier this month.  WRAL TechWire also went in-depth with the staff of the North Carolina Department of Commerce on the plan, and that article is linked here.

DURHAM – The recently released strategic economic develop plan from the North Carolina Department of Commerce deems the state’s current and future workforce as critical infrastructure for economic growth, as the executive summary of the plan notes that “expanded strategies and new approaches are required to ensure an available and skilled workforce.”

WRAL TechWire asked Professor John Quinterno, Visiting Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, about the strategic plan.

Quinterno was a part of a university-based team that bid on the project, but was not selected by the Department of Commerce, and played no additional role in the project until reviewing the final report shared publicly last week.  Quinterno is also the founder and principal of South by North Strategies Ltd., a research consultancy specializing in economic and social policy.

We’ve formatted our conversation as a Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

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WRAL TechWire (TW): What’s there to like about this plan—and why? 

One baseline issue with the report is that a great deal has changed since most of the research was done due to changes in departmental leadership and, more importantly, the fallout from the pandemic.

Overall, I liked how this plan took a different approach and focused entirely on issues related to education, talent, and workforce development.

It also tried to look at those issues more holistically and linked them to issues related to housing, transportation, health, and infrastructure, broadband in particular.

The document also calls attention to some of the special concerns facing rural communities, workers facing barriers to employment, and women-owned and minority-owned businesses. All of that is very welcome.

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TW: What aspects concern you—or don’t you like—and why?

Typically, these kinds of state-level strategic plans focus chiefly on industrial issues and traditional economic development concerns such as recruitment efforts, tax subsidies, and regulatory concerns with discussions of workforce issues receiving little more than cursory attention. Details typically are relegated to state workforce development commissions or educational institutions with the economic and workforce efforts preceding to unfold on disconnected paths.

In this plan, North Carolina clearly is trying to do something different, at least rhetorically, and hopefully, this plan can open a door to better conversations and promote better coordination between different agencies and systems. The kinds of community forums organized by the project team likely yielded voices and perspectives normally absent from these types of plans.

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The challenge, based on my experience, is that civic leaders always speak uniformly in favor of talent development and improved education in the abstract, but support dissipates once the details are discussed and decisions have to be made regarding funding and taxes.

If you look at the summarized strategies in the report, North Carolina arguably has done things related to every strategy since at least the late 1990s. Yet virtually none of the programs ever have received the support to be taken to a sustainable scale.

For instance, I served on a task force that attempted to pilot a statewide sectoral development program related to the health care sector back during the Easley administration. Some 15 years later, the report is still talking about the potential of sectoral development.

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TW: What’s NOT in the plan—but needs to be addressed?

The strategic plan also is silent to issues of money and politics. The tax system that has been built by the Republican-controlled Generally Assembly over the past decade really is unable to generate the funds needed to support robust expansions in public investment.

Look at the political fights over funding the Leandro mandate or the research that has tracked steady disinvestment in state support for the UNC system.

How likely is it that there suddenly will be interest, say, in a major expansion of childcare subsidies or of affordable housing dollars?

In the short-term, the massive infusion of federal money provided by the various COVID-relief packages may provide resources to experiment with programs, but once the funding ends, the state’s ability to maintain those investments, at least given the current political framework, is questionable.

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TW: What are the important takeaways?

Bottom line: I think the Department of Commerce deserves credit for approaching this economic development strategy through a different lens, one that attempts to view individual North Carolinians in the center of the stage and that makes the links between economic development and talent development explicit.

Some items can be implemented administratively via the executive branch and those might lead to a more efficient, better coordinated development system, which would be welcome.

Items that can draw on federal recovery funds can operate for some time, at least until the money is used up, and ideally will do good. Those items that require permanent money or that touch on political issues are apt to wind up in limbo.

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