When Jim Flock arrived in the Wilmington area eight years ago for a management position at HSM Machine Works, the Leland manufacturer was doing things “cheap and dirty.”
At the time, the company, which produces aviation landing gear, would hire local workers with minimal skills, Flock said, to complete the heavy milling work in Leland before shipping the parts to New York for more sophisticated, skilled finishing.
Flock was under a mandate from the company’s leaders to flip that model and to complete more of the skilled work at its Leland shop. So HSM Machine Works increased its pay and employee training but had trouble retaining its workers.
“The way things were developing, they would hire people here. Eventually, they’d up their skills, and they would leave to go to greener pastures,” Flock said.
The challenge of attracting and retaining skilled workers pushed Flock to join the Cape Fear Workforce Development Board. From there, he helped start the Cape Fear Manufacturing Partnership, a collaboration between local manufacturing leaders – many of whom faced the same challenges as Flock.
A handful of local industries have created similar sector partnerships, pooling employer resources to find new ways to develop a local workforce. Wilmington business technology leaders joined forces to create the Tech Talent Collaborative.
The collaborative comprises about a dozen tech employers looking to train and hire local early- to mid-career professionals. John Gillespie, chief technology officer of MegaCorp Logistics, co-chairs the group.
Gillespie said his company struggles to find qualified candidates in Wilmington. But not for lack of trying.
MegaCorp employees attend career fairs at local universities and fund internal training of local hires, but it isn’t enough to maintain a steady population of Wilmingtonians in its talent pool.
The Tech Talent Collaborative, Cape Fear Workforce Development Board and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce’s recent initiative, NC Career Coast, aim to meet the region’s growing employee needs with skilled candidates, whether they are from Wilmington or not.
The area is seeing substantial growth in jobs and residents.
Today, the region has about 10,000 more jobs than it had before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Mouhcine Guettabi, Wilmington’s regional economist and an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Over the past five years, the number of people living in the tri-county area has increased 6.3% from about 410,000 in 2016 to about 436,000 in 2022. However, retirees make up a substantial subset of that added population, Guettabi said. That means despite population increases, not all new residents are entering the workforce.
“We’re experiencing growth by these new companies moving into the area,” Guettabi said, “but it’s also stressing out the available workforce because we’re facing this kind of structural aging issue.”
Hiring locally is usually easier and less expensive, said Cape Fear Collective CEO Meaghan Dennison. But the industries flocking to the region, such as tech and manufacturing, are often new or haven’t had a local presence, Guettabi said.
“So that matching game is still an ongoing dance, if you will,” he said.
A recent example is an announcement from India-based Epsilon Advanced Materials, which makes graphite for electric vehicle batteries. The company expects to invest $650 million and hire 500 workers for a 1.5-million-square-foot facility planned in Brunswick County.
Most workers will need specialized training not currently available at Brunswick Community College, the educational institution that serves the area.
According to Greg Bland, the college’s vice president of continuing education, economic and workforce development, community college staff will undergo training on electric vehicles and electrification to prepare for future courses.
Flock has a unique perspective on the region’s workforce challenges because of his roles as chair of the Cape Fear Workforce Development Board and general manager of HSM Machine Works.
Regarding manufacturing jobs, Flock often encounters a lack of enthusiasm for the field from local students and job applicants. When he attends career fairs to recruit potential workers, he asks students to give the industry a chance.
“A lot of what I’m trying to say to people is to get them to not eliminate our jobs off the top of their head just because of what they’ve heard,” Flock said. “It’s all about showing people the different possibilities and getting them to think about what we can offer.”
Flock and his fellow manufacturing leaders also struggle to find workers with soft skills, including communication, teamwork, punctuality and eye contact.
In addition to soft skills, many roles open in Wilmington’s businesses require applicants to have specific technical skills.
For instance, MegaCorp uses the programming language SQL, but local universities typically teach Java, Python or Ruby, Gillespie said. His team at MegaCorp is working with UNCW to add more programming languages to the school’s software development program.
After speaking with its hiring team, Gillespie identified a gap in MegaCorp’s local talent pool. He uses the company’s IT department as an example. The department has 42 employees, 22 of whom were hired locally. The other half are from different areas in the state and work remotely.
Gillespie brought his findings to the Tech Talent Collaborative, where other tech employers confirmed a lack of local skilled workers.
The collaborative began polling tech companies in the city to see if the trend was widespread. Gillespie said they found the general talent pool at Wilmington’s tech companies was about 50% local and 50% remote workers.
BRINGING CAREERS TO THE COAST
Tech and manufacturing are two industries highlighted in the Wilmington chamber’s NC Career Coast website, a branded campaign to draw workers to the region.
“This website is mostly intended for people outside the community,” said Natalie English, president and CEO of the chamber.
The website allows workers considering a move to the Wilmington area to explore the region’s industries, lifestyle and housing costs. One aspect of the effort is changing people’s mindset about Wilmington from a vacation destination to a place to start a career.
By polling about 1,600 people, chamber staff identified the community’s pain points, which they addressed on the Career Coast website, said Megan Mullins, the chamber’s chief marketing and engagement officer.
English said a common challenge is finding workers with the proper training. Both Brunswick Community College and Cape Fear Community College are attempting to train students through new programs and initiatives.
Leaders at both community colleges have regular conversations with business leaders to gauge the skills needed across local industries.
“We really have got feelers out everywhere,” CFCC President Jim Morton said. “We want to hear from the business industry so we stay current, up to date and actually be ahead if we can.”
Following conversations with developers about a need for more local land surveyors, the community college is launching a geomatics or surveying course next fall, Morton said. The institution is also working to respond to a local shortage of nurses by tripling the size of its nursing program in a new building on its downtown campus.
At BCC, the welding program is growing by “leaps and bounds,” Bland said.
The county’s marine welding sector and companies such as Bradford Products and Industrial Reliability & Repair in Leland are fueling local demand for welders.
BCC recently relocated its machining technology shop from Leland to its main campus in Bolivia to make it more accessible to the high school students enrolled in its Career and College Promise programs, a workforce pipeline partnership with Brunswick County Schools.
Bland said he regularly hears from an array of Brunswick County employers looking for students they can mentor, train and promote.
“It’s important when employers ask that we open the door for them to meet with students quickly so they can get the talent they need,” Bland said. “That’s why we’re here.”