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.

RALEIGH – Economic development, or the recruitment of companies to establish new facilities or relocate headquarters locations, or the expansion of existing facilities, is a key driver in North Carolina’s economy.

That’s why the North Carolina Department of Commerce released a new strategic economic development plan for the state.  But the plan names 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 Dr. Henry C. McKoy, Jr., the lead entrepreneurship faculty and Director of Entrepreneurship at NC Central University in the School of Business, and a former assistant secretary of commerce at the North Carolina Department of Commerce from 2010-2012, about the plan.

The interview, below, has been lightly edited for clarity.

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

Dr. McKoy: The plan, in and of itself, does lay a strong foundation for a very important component of North Carolina’s future success.  This conversation is not new, as workforce has been a part of the dialogue for a very long time.  In fact, that is one of the key reasons why we are seen as such a desired destination for companies. 

Thus, I think recognizing that is important.  I also believe the reference to wanting to increase “equity” in the workforce development plan is also important.  This stated goal hasn’t always shown up in past plans.

The plan speaks to the need to be conscious of important areas like affordable and workforce housing, which is part of developing a workforce.  The plan also touches on the need to increase broadband across the state, in places—specifically rural—that struggles with that.  If broadband—high speed and robust broadband—can spread across our state, then it does open up possibilities for economic growth, which can positively impact the local workforce development.

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

Dr. McKoy: It would have been great to see a bit more about an investment strategy—How bold will this plan be?  What kind of resources will be leveraged?  What kind of innovative approaches will be leveraged to move the needle on this work?

I would have liked to see more discussion, or any discussion, on the idea of an “equitable investment structure” that is related to tax and incentive tools.  Currently, the state incentives programs really favor—almost exclusively—non-minority firms.

If not de jure, then de facto.

Photo via Innovate Carolina

Dr. Henry McKoy

This creates and expands already incredible racial wealth gaps in the state, but it also suppresses the strengthening of the overall diversity of the workforce.  The plan does speak to supporting more minority businesses, but it doesn’t speak specifically on the idea of leveraging equitable investment and policy to help scale those businesses.  For example, if we not just think about creating more black businesses in the state, but growing them into large entities, then that will have a more possible impact on workforce development than any other program that you can think of.   It would strengthen the ecosystem we seek to naturally develop talents from an array of communities.  The plan touches on it – but could go deeper and further.

The plan has a comprehensive nature to it.  So, it does hit on many of the right themes.  And I also believe that equity is showing up in the plan in ways that haven’t been as pronounced before.

That is a great thing.

However, I think that we need to be bolder and more pronounced.  This goes back to the idea of how do we scale minority businesses in ways that we have never attempted to before and how do we put much more effort into that?

Again, the plan speaks some to that—for example, around procurement—but has to be more central to the work.  Thus, even though the Department of Commerce said that no new entities were needed, perhaps they are.

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TW: What’s an important takeaway to consider?

Dr. McKoy: Even as important as it is to frame a dialogue around strengthening workforce development and entrepreneurship—which I think adding entrepreneurship is wonderful—I believe we could flip this model on its head.  If we continue to recruit the same type and model of business, then we are going to reinforce past and current inequities.

I commend companies on making commitments to be more equitable, but we have to change the culture of how we explore equity.  It feels like the tail is wagging the dog.

We want to train individuals for jobs of now, and the future – which is important.  There continue to be huge gaps between job openings out there and unemployed folks who could really use those jobs for upward mobility.  However, I want the state of North Carolina to position itself as “First in Equity,” meaning that we put every bit of our effort behind that.  At that point, then the talent component, as well as others will work themselves out.