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Talent First Economics

2023 Emerging Issues Forum
February 13, 2023
Raleigh, NC

The 2022 Forum focused on people as learners and asked how we can ensure that more of the state’s residents successfully complete some form of higher education. In contrast, the 2023 Forum will focus on people as employees and ask how we can best connect more people to the workforce and, once they are working, offer best practices for keeping them in the workforce.


If North Carolina is to remain competitive in an increasingly global, mobile and diverse economy, there is a strong consensus that we will need 2 million North Carolinians with a high-quality credential or postsecondary degree by 2030. Part of the challenge to reaching that goal is equipping more people with the right skills and credentials, as highlighted at the 2022 Emerging Issues Forum. But an equally important challenge, as North Carolina faces demographic challenges and a post-pandemic future, is ensuring enough people go to work – that they get in, stay in and thrive in the workplace. The 2023 Emerging Issues Forum will examine ways to overcome the barriers that are keeping a variety of workers from finding employment and staying engaged in the workplace. By looking at ways to put talent first, increasing our understanding of what employees are looking for and how employers and systems can respond, we can better locate, energize, equip and unleash North Carolina’s full abundance of talent.

The Challenge

North Carolina’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate, which includes those who are unemployed but actively looking for work, is 3.7% (December 2021). But if 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.

Most alarming is the percent of North Carolinians who have left the workforce altogether, notably women generally and especially married women and women with children under age 5; unmarried men; people with less education and people with disabilities. North Carolina’s seasonally adjusted labor force participation rate, which describes the percentage of people 16 or older who are working or actively looking for work, was down to 59.4% in December 2021 from 61.4% at the start of 2020, one of the largest drops in the South, and our recovery since then has been slower than other Southern states. Put another way, at a time when NC employers report over 426,000 job openings (December 2021), around 3.4 million North Carolina’s non-civilian workers are not employed and not actively looking for work.

While there is urgency to address the workforce challenges of today, we must also address trends pointing to a shrinking workforce of tomorrow. With retiring baby boomers and fewer births– 2019 marked a 35-year low in birth rates nationally – we will need to put a premium on getting the most out of every worker we do have. 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 examine policies that reduce barriers to labor market access and, with more than a quarter (28%) of US workers leaving after the first 90 days of employment, increase worker engagement through workplace culture and work supports, and create more opportunities for career growth.

Connect: Different groups of workers face different challenges when it comes to workforce participation. The 2023 Emerging Issues Forum will center the needs of the talent pool, with deeper examination of the needs of workers who have historically, or due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, had challenges with workforce access. Examples may include women with young children, workers of color, military veterans, those who have been justice-involved, those with disabilities, disconnected youth, those living in rural areas, individuals nearing retirement age, and bilingual/bicultural. We will also examine the continuing decline in labor force participation by male workers, most notable among white males.
Engage: Once new employees join the workplace, it benefits both the workers and employers for them to be engaged at their organization. To achieve this, more employers are implementing family-friendly workplace policies– offering family-sustaining wages and benefits, predictable work hours, paid leave and sick time, supporting training opportunities, and helping to subsidize childcare, transportation, and/or housing expenses. Others tout non-salary benefits, such as flexible or reduced hours and an inclusive culture where workers from all walks of life feel welcome and valued for their contributions. We want to learn what “works” for employers and employees in our fast-changing workplace.
Grow: Understanding that most employees want opportunities to move up the income ladder, and that holding on to an existing employee is easier than finding a new one, some employers are taking new steps to improve workers mobility from within their company. They are increasing retention by offering clear career growth opportunities and putting new emphasis on partnerships that make it easier for workers to retrain and reskill as industry needs change.
The Forum’s program of work will engage experts to examine the scope of the problem, highlight best and promising practices, and identify equitable policy and programmatic strategies to improve workforce participation in the near and long-term.

Moving Ideas to Action

The Forum will lift up effective practices and policy supports to increase workforce participation—with a focus on workers most at risk from being excluded. IEI will also select, highlight and support the work of a cohort of five communities from across the state committed to moving the needle in improving access and retention for these workers. This program will examine data and trends, engage stakeholders in identifying recommendations that connect more workers to the labor market and help them engage and grow, and build leadership capacity to move these ideas to action at the local level. Select activities will include:

  • Issuing a new NC Workforce Trends Report. Inspired by EMSI’s Demographic Drought report, economist Mike Walden will examine trends in factors impacting the state’s labor market and workforce access for certain subgroups of North Carolinians. The report will include labor market forecasts for NC through 2050, an analysis of the role of technology in improving labor productivity rates, and an evaluation of state policies that can be used to expand the future labor force. The report will be completed March 30, 2022.
  • Co-hosting the NC Association of Workforce Development Boards spring meeting on May 18, 2022. We will highlight data from the Walden report and engage workforce board members in discussions about disconnected workers in their regions. This conversation, along with the Walden report, other research and stakeholder engagement and input of an advisory committee will help IEI identify subgroups of workers to focus our policy and programmatic efforts.
  • Developing recommendations. IEI will convene a working group over the summer and fall to identify policies and programs that can better connect, engage and grow workers in these five subgroups, as well as lift up cross-cutting ideas. These recommendations will be discussed and debated at the Forum and refined post-forum. 
  • Forming a Community Cohort. IEI will identify 5 community teams to participate in a year-long process that brings together leaders in workforce and economic development. These teams, consisting of local economic and workforce developers, local decision makers, business leaders and others, will participate in NC State’s new Workforce Academy. The goal of the academy is for local economic development and workforce development professionals, and other partners to better coordinate and collaborate on their region’s economic development needs. With these skills and shared understanding, the cohort teams will develop a set of written action planning steps for each of their communities, drawing from the refined recommendations explored at the Forum.
  • Convening Regional Meetings. After the forum, IEI will travel to regions across the state. Partnering with the community teams, we will co-host a regional meeting to highlight what happened at the Forum. The teams will share their plans, incorporate feedback, and consider next steps. 


Sarah Langer Hall, Senior Policy and Program Manager

Interested in becoming a forum sponsor?

Contact IEI Development Director Tony Reevy at or 919.515.3543