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Talent First Economics

Engaging our Skilled Workforce for a Competitive North Carolina
February 13, 2023 | Raleigh, NC

Recommendations Report

Created by the Talent First Economics Task Force.

For North Carolina to stay competitive in an increasingly global, mobile and diverse economy, we need more workers, of all backgrounds and skill sets, to get hired and thrive in the workplace. 

The 2023 Emerging Issues Forum examined ways to overcome barriers and help workers find employment and stay engaged in the workplace. By putting talent first—increasing our understanding of what employees are looking for and how employers and systems can respond—we can better energize, equip and unleash North Carolina’s full abundance of talent.

The Challenge

North Carolina’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate is 3.4% (July 2022). When you include workers who are currently underemployed or involuntarily working part-time, the percentage more than doubles to 8.4%, one of the highest rates in the South.

North Carolina’s labor force participation rate is still below the pre-pandemic rate, and an alarming rate of North Carolinians have left the workforce altogether, including women (especially married women and women with children under 5), unmarried men, people with less education and people with disabilities. 

With more than a quarter (28%) of U.S. workers leaving within the first 90 days of employment, we also need to increase worker engagement and create more opportunities for career growth. 

Our future workforce is also shrinking. With retiring baby boomers and fewer births – 2019 marked a 35-year low in birth rates nationally – pressure for increased productivity will continue to be placed on workers in the labor force.

Unless we can find a way to fix our workforce “supply” issue, we will struggle to deliver critical public services, fail to meet our business growth and recruitment potential, and risk losing the competitive advantage we’ve built over the last half century.

The Opportunity: Connect, Engage, Grow

To realize North Carolina’s workforce potential, we must reduce barriers to the labor market for those who have not been able to secure employment and stay engaged. The 2023 Emerging Issues Forum and its related work has engaged experts to examine the scope of the problem, highlight best practices, and identify strategies to improve workforce participation. We looked at how employers can translate these best practices to their own workplaces to retain top talent.


We examined what it will take to connect workers to the workforce, particularly groups who have faced challenges historically, systematically, or due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These include:

  • Families with young children
  • Transitioning military veterans and their families
  • Justice involved
  • Opportunity youth (ages 16-24, not in school or working)
  • Those with disabilities/neurodiversity

We also examined the continuing decline in labor force participation by groups who have historically not faced barriers to employment.


Once new employees are hired, it benefits everyone for them to be engaged at their organization. We want to learn what works for employers and employees in the modern workplace; what workplace policies, benefits, flexibility and opportunities are attracting and keeping employees.


Most employees want to move up the income ladder, and retaining an employee is often easier and more cost effective than finding a new one. Some employers are taking steps to improve mobility and retention within their companies; they are offering career growth opportunities and making it easier for workers to learn new skills as industry needs change.

Moving Ideas to Action

IEI’s Talent First Economics team is taking on a variety of activities and initiatives to make connecting and engaging our state’s skilled workforce a reality.  

Graduate and post-doctoral students remain on campus to complete their research in Molecular and Structural Biochemistry during the fall 2020 semester. Photo by Becky Kirkland.

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