North Carolina is one of the states leading the country’s technology sector. Wilmington reflects many glowing North Carolina statistics but local tech leaders maintain that workforce is a pain point.
The North Carolina Tech Association released its State of the Industry report at its conference in Charlotte on Feb. 2. Ted Abernathy, workforce and strategy consultant with Economic Leadership LLC, is touring the state briefing key areas on the report and regional tech talent. Wilmington’s briefing was held Thursday at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
The report painted in broad strokes tech growth across North Carolina with 312,000 technology employees in the state. That means roughly seven in every 100 workers are in the tech industry, Abernathy said. The state saw nearly 100,000 new tech industry jobs in just over 10 years. But closer to home, the Wilmington tech workforce still lacks highly skilled candidates with multiple years of experience, local industry leaders said.
In the Wilmington MSA, just over 11,000 direct tech industry jobs were created, a growth rate of 12%, over the past five years. The state saw 26% job growth in the tech industry over the same period. Most of those jobs are in tech services, but if the aerospace and electric vehicle-related manufacturing projects proposed in the state come to fruition
, the number of tech manufacturing jobs could see a bump, Abernathy said.
Most of the tech jobs in the Wilmington MSA are in New Hanover County, Abernathy added, and over 5,000 of the jobs are in the life sciences industry.
The briefing was followed up with a panel of local tech talent leaders, including Ron Vetter, dean of UNCW’s College of Science and Engineering, Shannon Tully, vice president of human resources for fintech company Apiture, and Lisa Leath, chief people officer for software company Vantaca.
UNCW surveyed the programs other state universities offered and found a major in cyber security would be advantageous. The engineering school partnered with the business school to create a cyber security program with 120 students projected to graduate from the program after four years. Demand turned out to be far greater, Vetter said.
“After two years we have 150 majors,” he said. “We'll have 300 majors by next year. Now the problem becomes we can't hire fast enough in terms of faculty and space, where we're going to put these people.”
While students seem particularly interested in cyber security, the life sciences industry is the star of Wilmington’s tech workforce development, Abernathy said. The industry’s growth is reflected in state data as well, the numbers are slightly higher in Wilmington, he said.
Nationally, North Carolina has the highest percentage of women in tech, Abernathy said. Although about 37% of the state’s tech workforce is female compared to a population that's 51% female, Abernathy said the state remains proud of that statistic.
“What we're not as proud of is the diversity index, we're in the middle of the pack,” he said. “When you look at diversity here, we have about what you would expect from a diversity standpoint.”
“It’s not a switch,” Vetter said regarding training a more diverse talent pool.
The university has been working to improve the diversity of tech talent, but the issue is long-term, he said. The panel expressed similar sentiments about upskilling locals to fill tech jobs in the region.
“We want to employ more local folks, but that doesn’t just happen because you wish it,” Leath said.
She added that she co-chairs the Tech Talent Collaborative, a workforce development initiative in association with Cape Fear Collective. Vetter said the university does its best to produce many entry-level employees through the university, but it is difficult once open roles require 10-plus years of experience. Tully said that without their remote workforce, they would not be able to fill many of their senior-level technology roles.
“While it would be difficult to fill those positions, obviously, when we hire, if someone wants to relocate here, we’re happy to have them,” Tully said.
The panel also noted that tech talent must start early in the education process. The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce’s Career and Leadership Development Academy aims to show New Hanover County seventh graders different industries early on to get them thinking about their careers even before starting high school.
Leath called for community support for companies to allow the seventh graders in the program to come into their businesses because there are not enough participating businesses for the volume of students admitted into the program.