Beaufort County (Reconnect to Economic Opportunity)

Beaufort County’s story is a rural tale as old as time. When many of the region’s large-scale manufacturing employers closed down or turned to automation, young adults left to find jobs elsewhere. New businesses were reluctant to migrate in because of the inadequate talent pool. It was a problem that needed to be attacked from multiple angles.

That’s where the Subcommittee of the Business Advisory Council came in. In 2016, a group of independent actors decided to coordinate their efforts. Martyn Johnson, the team leader, is the Economic Development Director for Beaufort County, with an extensive background in city planning specializing in economic development (e.g., attracting businesses, ensuring workforce needs are met). Wes Watson, the manager of the NC Works Center of Beaufort County, recruits and connects qualified job-seekers to businesses within the county. Sara Watson, the Director of Customized Training and Apprenticeships at Beaufort Community College, works to identify and address the training needs of local manufacturers. Finally, Wendy Petteway (the Director of Workforce, Innovation, and STEM for Beaufort County Schools) runs the Career & Technical Education programs for middle and high school students.

They realized how intertwined their organizations could be and how they could leverage each person’s skills and knowledge to work toward their common goal: developing Beaufort County’s economy and securing viable careers for its citizens. “We all work together to help the goals of each of our organizations,” says Wendy.

The group is uniquely able to diagnose workforce problems and identify which members of the group would be best able to address those problems. Furthermore, they take a generalist approach to the development of digital resources—reports, promotional materials, or onsite tours of facilities (especially useful during COVID)—so that they can be used by multiple organizations. Because of the synergies between their organizations and the local businesses with which they have developed rapport, they have been able to pursue ambitious grant projects over the last few years.

It was through a Max Carolina Grant (2017) that they started to understand their group’s potential and the reputational clout they’d developed over the years. The grant itself was proposed to bring together educators and industry, requiring buy-in from local businesses, which would pay for recruitment and training through local educational programs. Wes’s organization (the Workforce Board) effectively authored the grant, held the money it gave, and provided the bulk of the job seekers. Wendy, in her capacity, reached out to graduating high school seniors, directing them towards this opportunity. Martyn reached out to local businesses that were experiencing staffing problems and got them to provide matching funding for the training. Finally, Sara, through the training and apprenticeship opportunities at Beaufort Community College, prepared the students for their new careers, with the last day of class consisting of informal interviews run by the companies who bought into the program. While not without its hiccups (namely, under-enrollment) the overwhelming majority of recruits were later employed by those businesses, and the group learned a great deal about their collaborative potential.

Since then, the group’s activities have expanded in several directions as they have responded to different needs and opportunities. In 2019 the group secured a $1.2 million Golden LEAF grant aimed at preparing students for a career chiefly in boat building, as well as careers in agriculture, trades and industry (i.e., welding, carpentry, electrical trades) and health sciences (i.e., CNA, nursing, health careers). The grant entails the construction of new boat making facilities at the high school and community college, with the ambition of preparing about 80 recruits over the next few years—a process that COVID has slowed. “Although we have lots of jobs right now, we need more qualified people,” says Wes, and “manufacturers need to understand that they can’t just hire somebody off the street.” Instead, they need to develop apprenticeship programs to train the workforce they already have access to, like employees or students. 

In their collaborations with IEI, the group has had the opportunity to better take stock of the skills they possess, the new partnerships they can form, and the expansive possibilities available to their region. And yet, they attribute much of their success to their loose and informal nature. They are fundamentally a group of people working within the same orbits, who realized they could be more effective if they pooled their resources. Within their group, they are able to do the messy work of relationship building and of recognizing opportunities that could benefit their colleagues (either collectively or individually). These are people who like working together, who choose to work together, and (most importantly) are given enough leeway by their parent organizations that each action they take doesn’t need to correspond to a metric for success. This degree of freedom, together with the fact that they are a small, agile, and independent team, gives them the space they need to get work done.

Written by Chris Kampe.