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Community Cohort Stories

Community Cohort Team Discusses Engaging with Underutilized Workers in Eastern NC

A man speaks into a microphone at the front of a room. In the background, several people sit at a table listening.
Carlos Cotto, Associate Dean of Workforce Development and Latino Programs at Lenoir Community College, speaks to Greene County business owners and HR representatives at the Greene County Wellness Center. Cotto is a member of IEI’s Talent First Economics Community Cohort.

Having completed their workforce development training with the Institute for Emerging Issues’ (IEI) Talent First Economics Community Cohort, members of the cohort’s Eastern Carolina Region community team engaged in dialogue with businesses, community leaders, and individual job-seekers, at a regional action planning meeting in Snow Hill on Wednesday, September 13. This meeting was the first step in turning the Talent First Economics recommendations report into an actionable reality in eastern North Carolina. 

As members of the cohort, the community team participated in NC State’s Workforce Development Leadership Initiative (WDLI) where they focused on workforce development within four major populations: opportunity youth (ages 16-24, not in school and not working), transitioning military and their families, justice-involved individuals, and non-English speakers. 

Often, these populations face barriers to entering the workforce due to stigma, lack of resources or other factors. At the meeting, cohort members assured businesses that expanding their workforce to these workers is not only possible, but has already occurred—and with significant economic benefits. 

“That’s the other piece of this,” said Phil Prescott, community cohort member and Assistant Director of the Eastern Carolina Workforce Development Board. “How can we encourage businesses to give people a chance that maybe don’t have everything they need? What can we do to help incentivize you, Mr. Small Business Investor, Ms. Small Business Person, to hire people that we can help you train?”

Carlos Cotto, community cohort member and Associate Dean of Workforce Development and Latino Programs at Lenoir Community College (LCC), spoke about  the pivotal role continuing education plays in helping companies meet their needs by preparing the Latino community for good, high quality jobs.

“If you understand workforce development, continuing education is workforce development,” Cotto said. 

Since 2012, Cotto has run LCC’s Centro Educativo Latino, which now offers more than 20 different Spanish-only certification programs for more than 1,000 students each year. Many of these certifications are in partnership with local and corporate businesses, ensuring that companies are hiring workers with their specific training needs. 

“On that stage, the company gets to understand that whatever their needs are, we can meet them,” said Cotto. “We’ll tailor the class to your needs so that you are not hiring in the blind. You know exactly what you’re getting.”

Opportunity Youth

Additionally, the community cohort hopes to expand their outreach to local opportunity youth. According to the recommendations report, this group in particular lacks exposure to career guidance that is engaging and interesting. 

“That connection is something that’s a challenge, and actually finding people that can relate to them,” said Prescott. “They want to see somebody that looks like them, that sounds like them, and has experienced life like they have. And I think that’s much more powerful.”

In working with superintendents, principals and counselors at alternative high schools, Cotto is optimistic that community colleges will be able to better reach opportunity youth in eastern North Carolina. In doing so, it may open up students to pursue in-demand, well-paying trades such as plumbing, cosmetology, HVAC and propane — career opportunities that this young demographic may not have considered because of assumptions regarding tuition costs or academic qualifications.

“If this is not looked upon in a timely manner, it can be a problem for the social cycle for years to come,” said Cotto, citing the increased likelihood for drug use, incarceration and unemployment for opportunity youth. “If we were able to tackle the alternative schools, we would be at least closer than yesterday in solving an issue.”

Transitioning Military and Families 

The Eastern Carolina community cohort team also discussed how transitioning military members and their families were too-often overlooked by employers, despite the valuable skills and talents they possess. Home to several major military bases such as Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, the cohort team’s nine-county region has roughly 10,000 transitioning military members and families. Prescott agreed that there needs to be a more concerted effort in connecting businesses to this untapped workforce. 

“These are people that are getting out of the military with varying skill sets that could easily transfer into the civilian workforce,” said Prescott. “I don’t think we do a good enough job selling that to the business community.”

In addition to Phil Prescott and Carlos Cotto, fellow Eastern Carolina Region Community Cohort members David Bone (Eastern Carolina Council of Governments) and Trey Cash (Greene County Economic Development Director) talked to attendees about their workforce development insights, recommendations and strategies specific to Greene County and eastern North Carolina. Additionally, IEI Director Sarah Hall, Lenoir Community College Associate Dean of AAMC and Workforce Development Dawn Kantz and Eastern Carolina Workforce Development Board Business Services Representative Erik Heck presented on programs and initiatives that could be of use for attendees.

Seven people stand posing by a banner for the Economic Development Region.
Members of the Eastern Carolina Region community cohort pose with other regional leadership who helped make the event possible. From left: Trey Cash, Dawn Kantz, Carlos Cotto, Sarah Hall, Phil Prescott, David Bone and Erik Heck.

Through the strategies learned during their WDLI training, the cohort is optimistic about getting local businesses and HR groups on board to help employ workers who have been historically underutilized in the workforce. The Greene County meeting acted as an initial launching pad, and the community team hopes to replicate similar events in all nine counties in the region.

“I really want to see who’s interested,” said Prescott. “I want to be able to identify a handful of businesses that we can call on and say, ‘Are you ready to actually do something about the pipeline and workforce in Green County?’ And if you are, then here’s some ideas that we’ve learned through our collaborative and our leadership training that we feel like you could take advantage of.”