RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – On the heels of National Small Business Week, entrepreneurs were treated to a day of sessions devoted to helping them identify, recruit, and train talent. While unemployment remains well under 4% and with nationally some 9 million job openings, companies from small to large, new to established, face workforce challenges. There are ways to fight the problem, executives were told Tuesday.

The North Carolina Association of Workforce Development Boards (NCAWDB) and NC IDEA teamed up for today’s “Small Business and Entrepreneurial Convening,” along with location host RTI.

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“Last week Governor [Roy] Cooper proclaimed Small Business Week in North Carolina,” said NC Commission Deputy Chief Secretary Jordan Whichard in opening remarks. “We did this to recognize the significant impact of entrepreneurs and small businesses on North Carolina’s economy and it is clear that that impact is outsized. In 2022, North Carolina charted 994,500 small businesses accounting for more than 99% of the state’s businesses.”

Small businesses employed more than 1.7 million people statewide last year, representing almost half of the state’s private sector workforce, according to Whichard.

“The ability to find high-quality employees is clearly the single most important issue that North Carolina businesses face,” continued Whichard. “And that’s true businesses of large and small.”

Huade Tan, Kevin Robinson, and Gary Hardin speak with moderator and business owner Cherelle James. (WRAL TechWire phoro by Jen McFarland)

Small Business Experiences

Small business owner and NC Works Commission member Olalah Njenga spoke about her experiences in more than 20 years of entrepreneurship. Her comments mirrored others as she recalled some of her challenges and the immense value of small-business support programs and grants like those offered by Workforce Development Boards and NC IDEA.

“I started to understand the relationship between workforce and economics, economics and small business, and then small business and workforce,” reflected Njenga. “And isn’t that why we’re here today? So that we can close the gap. So that we can strengthen these interrelated efforts so that we can leverage more opportunities for the small business and entrepreneurial ecosystem. And so that North Carolina leads that conversation about what it really takes to fuel the small business and entrepreneurial ecosystem in this country.”

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Njenga was followed by a panel of small business owners who offered insights into a broad range of entrepreneurial challenges. Moderated by Cherelle James of My Local CFO, the panel included Kevin Robinson of RTriad Enterprises, Gary Hardin of Further Service, Inc., and Huade Tan, Co-founder and CTO of Plantd.

The panel hit on many of the hot topics small business owners face when hiring: recruitment, providing a living wage, and how to know when it’s time to grow. The group also discussed apprenticeship and on-the-job training solutions.

“This is really important to know what sorts of vehicles a small business owner can leverage to get more talent into their business and to get people that are going to know your environment. So you’re getting to mold them,” commented Robinson. “And this is why we say build what you can’t find. You may never find the person that’s going to be exactly right to the criteria that you’re trying to hire for. But you can take a low-cost path to building that person.”

Hardin agreed that the value of support systems like OTJ Training grants is a huge win for all.

“On-the-job training was absolutely huge because again, so much money goes out for just training and you’re really not getting the money coming back in,” Hardin reflected. “That was so huge for our business to be able to bring on multiple people, [have them] really succeed one right after the other, and then having them train others.”

Olalah Njenga speaks at “Fueling the Future of the Small Business and the Entrepreneur Ecosystem” (WRAL TechWire photo by Jen McFarland)

Small Business Mindest

Across the sessions, the speakers returned to the theme of the “entrepreneurial mindset” that leads some to make the leap to start their own business. Small business creation has been on the rise in recent years and this too should be evaluated in recruitment and employee development.

“Millennials like me and even folks, Gen Z are maybe the most entrepreneurial generation yet,” Whichard said in his comments. “That is increasingly showing that they might not want to work a corporate job, they may want to be involved in the gig economy. They may want to work for themselves, but they don’t simply want to create value for someone else’s company. They wanted to create value for themselves and for their own life and for their own businesses. And so if that’s the case, we really have to support this entrepreneurship development as part of a holistic approach to workforce development.”

Thom Ruhe, President and CEO of NC IDEA incorporated a similar argument in his introduction.

“In my opinion, an entrepreneur mindset is less of a business skill than it is a life skill,” stated Ruhe. “Let’s talk about problem-solving, critical thinking, recognizing problems as opportunities. Does any of that seem foreign to you that you would want to see those skills in your employees?”

Afternoon Sessions

The afternoon included an“Employer Spotlight” of the Ben Colvin and the Devils Foot Beverage Company who were able to work with their local Workforce Development Board for specialized staff training.

The sold-out event continued with an afternoon Workforce Development panel, a “Parade of Resources” and closing remarks by Christopher Gergen of Forward Impact & Raleigh Founded.