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March 2018

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Work in Burke - Addressing the Interest Gap
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Work in Burke - Addressing the Interest Gap

Many companies in Burke County, NC, are growing. Continental recently announced a $40M expansion and plans to create 160 new jobs.

Pierce Erich, a toolmaker at Leviton in Burke County, NC, is one of the employees featured in the Work in Burke campaign.

EJ Victor employee Bobby Carswell was recently featured as a Work in Burke success story.

"It seems that anywhere you go, people in the manufacturing industry are talking about the 'skills gap,' said Alan Wood, President and CEO of Burke Development, the Burke County, NC, economic development arm. "However, the real issue in building the future workforce for the manufacturing sector lies in the 'interest gap.' Young people, who are often unaware of the opportunities offered in manufacturing, have no interest in pursuing careers in these fields. For officials in Burke County, located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, this problem is particularly troubling because nearly 30% of the county's employment is in the manufacturing sector."

Wood continued, "We started talking with our local industry and realized that something had to change. It had to go further upstream than just making sure we had the proper training. Our local community college had excellent classes in mechatronics and other industry-related topics, but the seats were empty because the interest from students wasn't there."

Companies were asking local leaders to solve two corresponding challenges. First, address the incorrect perceptions that citizens have about local jobs and address the need for skilled workers in technical positions. Burke Development, in partnership with Burke County Public Schools and Western Piedmont Community College, embarked on a six-month planning and research process.

For this, they went right to the source and held focus groups and interviews in middle and high schools, the local employment office, at the community college and in manufacturing facilities. They held 10 focus groups and conducted interviews and surveys engaging nearly 300 parents, students, employers and citizens representing the future of Burke County's workforce. Survey results were largely what they anticipated.

Sixty-two percent of high school students did not feel that manufacturing jobs were stable and reliable. Only 44% said they would consider attending a two-year or technical college to train for a job in manufacturing. Additionally, an overwhelming majority, 68%, said they had plans to leave Burke County after graduating high school. When asked to describe local job opportunities, comments from the students included things like "slim to none," and when asked who had the most influence over their job and career decisions they said their parents.

This would prove to be a challenge because the parents, in many ways, were even less optimistic about the manufacturing sector with over 76% saying they agree that manufacturing jobs were at risk of disappearing or leaving. While 55% of parents said they believed there were good opportunities for their son/daughter in the manufacturing field, only 41% said they would encourage their child to go to a technical college to train for a job in manufacturing.

Local officials and the manufacturing companies themselves knew many of these perceptions were untrue. Wages and benefits in the manufacturing sector were generally better than in other sectors within the county. These companies were expanding and growing rapidly, had open positions they could not fill and desperately needed younger employees as an older generation prepared to retire.

Through the research process they discovered that while many positive actions were already underway by educational partners to address these issues, the missing piece was a long-term marketing and branding campaign that creates systematic and cultural change. They broadened their list of partners to include the local workforce development board, employment office, chamber of commerce and many of the county's largest employers and secured $300,000 of funding to launch the campaign.

They knew the campaign needed to be locally driven and target middle and high school students and their parents. While the primary goals were to fill the future workforce pipeline and change perceptions about local jobs and training opportunities they set secondary goals of increasing the number of graduating seniors who pursue postsecondary education and increasing the number of students engaging in workplace experiences.

They established two critical measurements to gauge success over the first two years and these included a 15% decrease in ratings of negative characteristics associated with manufacturing jobs during follow-up focus groups as compared to focus groups held during the campaign's research phase and at least a 15-20% increase in the number of Burke County Public School graduates that pursue a postsecondary education at Western Piedmont Community College.

In Fall 2017 Work in Burke was officially launched "to ensure that young people and their parents are aware of the diverse range of career opportunities available in Burke County and the training required to pursue a career in those fields."

The campaign centers around the promotion of an exciting and engaging brand. The name and logo were developed with large amounts of feedback and input from students themselves. A unique and interactive website is a key feature of the campaign. The site features a Career Explorer tool that allows young people the opportunity to select filters, such as "help people" or "fix things," that point them to local careers that might be of interest. The pay range, education required and demand for each career type is highlighted, as well as events, opportunities and paths that students can take to pursue the career.

Unique content that showcases local career opportunities is being continuously developed. This includes photos and videos that highlight local people who have found fulfilling careers in Burke County and have been supported by the local education system. This content is being shared via social media, direct mail, paid ads, presentations and grassroots events.

Work in Burke is also coordinating with Burke County public schools and Western Piedmont Community College to engage local employers by making them Work in Burke partners. Together they will expose young people to local career possibilities, give them opportunities to experience careers firsthand through internships, build deeper relationships between companies and schools and support students through scholarship and mentorship programs.

One of these initiatives is the expansion of a program called STRIVE, which offers an opportunity to selected high school seniors and juniors to participate in a year-long mentorship group that meets monthly. The student who has the highest increase in their GPA during the year receives a scholarship.

Many aspects of the campaign are just beginning to take shape and bear fruit. Members of Burke County's education and business community are prepared for a long-term campaign and do not expect to see true results for at least 10 years as current middle school students begin to graduate from high school or college and enter the workforce. Despite the long-term approach, the campaign has begun to shift perceptions of many thought leaders, elected officials, teachers and counselors in the community.

As more of these groups are exposed to the key messages of the campaign, there is a growing support system for students made up of individuals who are dedicated to helping them make informed decisions about career pathways and emphasize the importance of postsecondary education, gaining marketable skills and being lifelong learners.

The Work in Burke campaign is not the only answer to addressing the interest gap but it does point to one example of how a rural county in North Carolina is implementing an innovative idea to solve the problem. Ideally the campaign will address workforce concerns for the county's primary employers and - perhaps more importantly - it will help many of the Burke County's young people find their path to a stable and fulfilling career.

For more information contact:

Burke Development Inc.

2128 South Sterling St., Ste. 150

Morganton, NC 28655


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