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Spotlighting North Carolina Change Agents

As my time as IEI’s Communication Intern comes to a close, I want to highlight the incredible North Carolinians I had the pleasure of interviewing this year. These are just a small sample of the many change agents across the state who are working everyday to improve North Carolina’s talent pipeline and connect underutilized communities to well-paying, meaningful jobs. 

This internship was a part of the 2023 Talent First Economics Community Cohort, highlighting how the regional cohort teams are moving the needle for workforce development in their respective communities. You can view their stories here.

Philip Prescott, Assistant Director, Eastern Carolina Workforce Development Board

Our Conversation: Prescott was incredibly knowledgeable about how businesses can better engage with families with young children, transitioning military, and opportunity youth. 

“That’s the big thing: What are the skill gaps and how can we better get people trained? How can we encourage businesses to give people a chance that maybe don’t have everything they need? We’ve got space and resources east of I-95 that can help the state grow, and I think we’ve got some opportunities.”

Carlos Cotto, Associate Dean of Workforce Development and Latino Programs, Lenoir Community College

Our Conversation: Cotto is passionate about helping Spanish speakers access affordable training and certification classes. He has seen first-hand how offering continuing education in Spanish has been advantageous to both job seekers and employers. 

“I decided to focus on the Latino side that was underserved in so many ways. That started HVAC, auto mechanics, welding — all in Spanish, and the classes were filling up… From 25-30 students to 680 students per semester.”

Seven people stand posing by a banner for the Economic Development Region.
Prescott (third from right) and Cotto (third from left) stand with other workforce development leaders in the Eastern NC Region.

Ed Treat, Staff Attorney, Pisgah Legal Services

Our Conversation: An estimated 1 million North Carolina drivers do not have a license, or have had it revoked. Not having a driver’s license is a major barrier to employment because it limits where one can live, available job opportunities, and the hours one is able to work. 

“I have clients come to me and say, ‘Ed, I have a letter from the employer. They want to hire me, but they want to see my driver’s license. I can’t take it until you help me.’ So that makes me think that we are just holding ourselves back and slowing our economic growth.”

Treat (right) has helped many justice-involved individuals restore their driver’s license — such as Halston Fisher (left). 

DeWayne Barton, CEO, Hood Huggers International

Our Conversation: Barton’s Hood Huggers International is a grassroots organization centered around creating workforce development opportunities and community wellness within the historic African American Burton Street neighborhood in Asheville. Find out more about Hood Huggers International’s various initiatives in sustainability, tourism, youth development and collaborative frameworks on their website

“The pathways to access these opportunities are not always clear. People don’t always know which door you need to knock on, which path you need to take, so we got to do a better job of connecting the neighborhoods and the people who have historically been out-of-pocket — to connect them to these opportunities.”

Dewayne Barton

Emily Nicholson, Executive Director, Land of Sky P20 Council

Our Conversation: Nicholson discussed how Land of Sky P20 Council is invested in the entire continuum of learners in order to improve workforce development opportunities in Western NC. 

“One of our taglines that we use is ‘When there are gaps, we build bridges.’ So we have to be ready to respond to those. Sometimes that’s advocacy, sometimes it’s grant writing, and other times it’s as simple as connecting Johnny to Sally.”

Emily Nicholson

Jamir Jumoke, Case Manager, Pathway Home Program at LINC Inc.

Our Conversation: Jumoke talked to me about the LITE Manhood program within LINC Inc., which works with young Black men ages 16-24 to direct them toward education and workforce opportunities. Jumoke emphasized the need for increased mentorship amongst formerly justice-involved community members. 

“In the age of social media, the generational attention span is not what it used to be. So we are trying to figure out how to push our kids in the direction of education, while having to compete with entertainment. We’ve got to figure out a more creative and innovative way to put the ‘medicine in the candy.’”

Jumoke (left) speaks on a panel at the Cape Fear Region Workforce Action Meeting.

Chris Huntley, Director of Workforce Initiatives, shift_ed

Our Conversation: Huntley is passionate about children and teens being able to discover their passions early. His organization, shift_ed, is committed to helping guide Guilford County students to their career goals and life aspirations. 

“I used to be an athletics coach. When you recruit a player, you are there and you are supporting them. I think the more touch points our employers have, the more they will get some of this talent that we have.”

Huntley (standing) addressed the room at the Regional Workforce Development meeting in High Point.

Barbie Patterson, Director of Workforce Development, Reading Connections

Our Conversation: Patterson and the team at Reading Connections are working to create workforce pipelines for various underutilized groups including mothers with young children, non-English speakers, immigrants and refugees.

“We work with women who are interested in getting a career in the trades. They come in and we do the related instructions, including construction math and some soft skills. Then they do hands-on work so they can get a little taste of electrical, carpentry, welding — all those different things so they can find out what they really have an aptitude for and what they really enjoy doing.”

Barbie Patterson

Dr. Balu Gokaraju, Associate Professor, NC Agricultural and Technical State University

Our Conversation: Dr. Balu is excited about continuing to grow the clean energy workforce pipeline throughout North Carolina. Extensive training programs and various workforce partnerships has made Steps4Growth a leading program for well-paying jobs within energy efficiency, HVAC, solar panel installation, grid and storage sectors and more.  

“For the rural region it is very important that we provide wrap-around services and transportation. To continue growth within the clean energy workforce, we need to go into these underserved regions that we have not been able to concentrate in.”  

Dr. Balu Gokaraju speaks about Steps4Growth’s progress at the Guilford Co. Regional Action Meeting.