Editor’s Note: Sarah Langer Hall is the interim director at the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University. For more information about Talent First Economics, visit iei.ncsu.edu/talent-first-economics.

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 RALEIGH – You may hear statements like “no one wants to work” or “I have several job openings and no one is applying” all the time.

Whether it is referred to as the Great Resignation, the Great Reshuffle, or even the Great Reflection, the impacts of the declining workforce are being felt in both urban and rural communities across North Carolina.

Similar to national trends, our state’s Labor Force Participation Rate has not fully rebounded from pre-pandemic levels. North Carolina’s rate was 61.4% in January 2020. As of August 2022, we clocked in at 60.6%. Less than one percent may not seem like a lot, but it still makes quite an impact. In fact, if we had the same percentage of people participating in the labor force in August 2022 as we did in January 2020, we would have 68,000 more workers.

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Good – and bad – news

The good news is that there are talented people here in our state who are ready and willing to work. The bad news? They face historic and systemic barriers to participating, making it difficult to find meaningful employment and stay engaged in the workplace.

Who are these potential employees? At the Institute for Emerging Issues, we are focusing our efforts on members of the military transitioning to civilian life and their families, opportunity youth who are not in school or working, parents of young children, justice involved, and those with disabilities and neurodiversity.

So, how do we engage with these potential employees? How do we open doors so they can bring their skills to the workplace? How do we encourage employers to look past their own biases and barriers in their organizations? And once they’re hired, how do we keep these employees engaged?

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One solution

Our 2023 Emerging Issues Forum, Talent First Economics, and its related program of work is seeking answers and effective solutions to these questions by engaging a people-first strategy.

First, we’ve established a Talent First Economics Community Cohort. This cohort is a peer learning network designed to increase collaboration among workforce, economic and community development leaders to ensure their regions are better equipped to grow their workforce, with a focus on underrepresented workers.

The cohort had their first meeting on October 10 and 11 in Raleigh. Members were able to share challenges, solutions and ideas to take back to their local communities, all while learning about workforce development from leaders in the field.

Second, our Task Force on Talent First Economics is currently examining what it will take to connect workers from these underrepresented groups to meaningful, long-term employment.

What makes this task force unique is the members themselves.

Led by IEI’s Practitioner-In-Residence Philip Cooper and NCWorks Commission Executive Director Annie Izod, the task force is made up of employers who have hired workers from these underrepresented communities, nonprofits working with these communities, representatives from the workforce system, and employees and advocates with lived experience in these areas.

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Join the dialogue

By having those with lived experiences at the table, the task force can better identify challenges experienced by those who want to work and determine the most appropriate recommendations to overcome those challenges. We’ll continue this dialogue at the 2023 Emerging Issues Forum on February 13, 2023.

Our goal is to come out of this process with actionable tools that won’t just sit on a shelf and collect dust, but will result in meaningful change, leading to greater employment and stability for all.

Solving North Carolina’s labor shortage will not be an easy task, but it is doable if we put our people, and their talent, first.

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