First in Talent Progress Highlighted at Commerce Townhall

The mood was upbeat as North Carolina Department of Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders opened the state’s First in Talent Townhall on July 27, just two weeks after CNBC named the Tar Heel State the country’s top state for business—for the second year in a row. Sanders also serves on the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Board of Directors. 

Sanders photo
Sec. Machelle Baker Sanders

“We are here to celebrate the accomplishments for fiscal year 2022 to 2023 and recognize our partners who implemented the strategies in our First in Talent Plan across the state,” she said. Sanders was referring to the state’s “First in Talent: Strategic Economic Development Plan for the State of North Carolina,” published by Commerce in July 2021. It outlines specific goals, strategies and tactics for economic development and serves as a reference point for policymakers. 

The event served to update North Carolinians on progress made during the first two years of the four-year plan. “With state agencies, non-governmental organizations and the business community, we have initiated or completed” just over 75 percent of the tactics listed in the plan, Sanders said. A full progress report, provided to the Governor and members of the General Assembly in April, may be found here.  

“I want to thank all the stakeholders who have been involved,” Sanders said. She also acknowledged Cisco Systems, which hosted the virtual event attended by nearly 200 people. 
Three panel discussions took place following the secretary’s opening remarks, reflecting the plan’s three goals: 

  • Prepare North Carolina’s workforce for career and entrepreneurial success (Workforce Panel)  
  • Prepare North Carolina’s businesses for success by growing and attracting a talented workforce (Business Panel)  
  • Prepare communities across North Carolina to be more competitive in growing and attracting a talented workforce and businesses (Community Panel)  

The theme of “partnership” dominated the panel discussions. “As a state that aims to be ‘First in Talent’ it’s imperative that we deploy work-based learning opportunities and apprenticeships that offer K-12 students practical work experiences for rewarding careers in high-demand fields,” said Trey Michael, Senior Director of Career and Technical Education at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, during the Workplace Panel. Other speakers agreed on the importance of a strong education system at all levels. 

On the Business Panel, speakers emphasized there are 83 NCWorks Career Centers across the state, with counselors ready to assist job seekers and employers. Part of Commerce, the centers work closely with local workforce boards and education systems.  

Those and other partners are hard at work seeking new opportunities for North Carolina entrepreneurs, who are vital drivers of the state’s economy. John Hardin, PhD, also on the Business Panel, is Executive Director of Commerce’s Office of Science, Technology and Innovation. He promoted the Aug. 15 submission deadline for federal grants for Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs—and noted that North Carolina has several consortia interested in the grants. 

This U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) initiative seeks to drive regional technology- and innovation-centric growth by strengthening a region’s capacity to manufacture, commercialize and deploy critical technologies. Hardin encouraged those interested to see the N.C. Commerce Tech Hubs webpage

The North Carolina economic development community understands well how to come together when applying for large federal grants. In 2022, NCBiotech led an initiative resulting in a $25 million EDA grant for life sciences workforce development. Partners included Commerce and other state agencies, universities and HBCUs, community colleges and non-profits. The effort also involved the Governor and the General Assembly’s bipartisan Life Sciences Caucus, the NC Biosciences Organization and many community, university and industry partners. See the NCBiotech announcement for more information. 

The grant will make an enormous difference to prospective employees and employers, especially in the state’s more rural areas. “We are finding it extremely important to pair students with work-based knowledge and experience in rural parts of our state,” said NCBiotech Vice President Mark Phillips, also Executive Director of the NCBiotech Eastern Regional Office in Greenville.  

Phillips, working with Thermo Fisher Scientific, developed the Pharma K12 Workforce Development Training Initiative, now called the Manufacturing Prep / NCGrads2Work Program. The program enables high school graduates to participate in pharmaceutical manufacturing training at the North Carolina Pharmaceutical Services Network at Pitt Community College. Along with learning good manufacturing practices and working in a regulated environment, students gain hands-on experience with equipment. The new grant will allow the program to expand significantly. In addition to Thermo Fisher, Catalent is now part of the program, Phillips said. 

In her closing remarks, Secretary Sanders praised North Carolina’s ability to bring together workforce, education and other economic development partners to benefit the people of the state. “Moving forward, we will continue to focus on workforce development training and advocate for public education, workforce … We will partner with stakeholders and community colleges, the university system, business recruitment … and you can count on me to be a fierce advocate for North Carolina,” she added.

The full webinar may be viewed here, on the Commerce YouTube channel.

Kathy Neal, NCBiotech Writer
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