SANFORD, N.C. — Education and workforce development organizations throughout central North Carolina put pen to paper Thursday (Sept. 21, 2023), creating AdvanceNC, a new coalition Gov. Roy Cooper predicted would become “a mighty force” preparing North Carolinians for jobs in a vibrant, ever-changing economy.

AdvanceNC is formally described as “an innovative workforce development ecosystem developing a robust talent pipeline to support unprecedented economic growth in central North Carolina.”

What it boils down to is 10 community colleges, two state universities and six regional workforce development boards combining what they do best to provide opportunity for local families and develop expert workers for the exploding number of advanced manufacturing companies in the region. Though AdvanceNC focuses on 18 counties, it also is being promoted as a model that can be replicated all across the state.

Speaking to an audience at Central Carolina Community College’s E. Eugene Moore Manufacturing and Biotech Solutions Center in Sanford, Gov. Cooper explained why this new coalition has so much promise. “North Carolina has the best array of public and private universities in the country, bar none …. And I can say without hesitation that we have the best community college system in the entire country,” he said. “When you couple that with our effective workforce development boards and their staff, it is a sight to see.

“All of them working together is a mighty force and the collaboration that will come with AdvanceNC, this initiative, it will do more than I can think of to help prepare our workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Community colleges have long been a driving force statewide in workforce development. The North Carolina Community College System offers a sweeping portfolio of initiatives designed to train workers for new careers and help companies develop workers already on the job. But because those apprenticeships and courses are offered by individual colleges with well-defined service areas, it’s not always simple to work across borders.

During the signing ceremony, Dr. Jeff Cox, president of the North Carolina Community College System, said that reality is one reason AdvanceNC is needed. “Companies don’t care anything about our little territories for individual community colleges,” he said. “They don’t want to know about competition between the universities and the community colleges. They want us all working together to meet their workforce needs. And that’s what this represents, 100 percent.”

Less than two years ago, Toyota announced it would build a new $1.29 billion automotive battery manufacturing plant at a Randolph County location not far from Greensboro that would create 1,750 new jobs. And the company added another $2.1 billion investment to that project just four months ago.

More big news broke just months after the initial Toyota announcement, in March 2022, when Vietnamese electric vehicle manufacturer VinFast announced a $4 billion advanced manufacturing plant near Moncure that is expected to create 7,500 jobs. VinFast was the largest economic development project in North Carolina history — for about five months. That’s when Wolfspeed, a silicon carbide manufacturer based in Durham, announced early last September that it would invest $5 billion to create a new manufacturing center that would bring 1,800 jobs to Siler City.

Such rapid expansion required a new approach to workforce development. But Rodney Carson, president of the North Carolina Association of Workforce Development Boards, isn’t worried about the state’s ability to adapt. Reflecting on innovations from early in his own workforce development career, Carson believes that the solution is finding new ways to develop workers, something North Carolina has done before.

“I think about how we pushed the envelope when it comes to workforce development,” Carson said. “AdvanceNC does exactly that. We continue to push the envelope on what workforce and the workforce ecosystem is in North Carolina. We were, 27 years ago, the shining example of what workforce development is in this country as a whole. AdvanceNC pushes that envelope even further and continues to push us out to the edge of what it means to truly take care of our citizens.”

It was a sentiment shared by Peter Hans, president of the University of North Carolina System. He reflected on North Carolina’s transformation over generations from an agricultural economy based largely on textiles and tobacco, into major hubs for research and banking, and now into the kind of advanced manufacturing center defined by Toyota, VinFast and Wolfspeed.

“At every turn, North Carolina has trusted in the capacity of its people to learn, to adapt and compete,” Hans said. “We may be a valley of humility, as the old saying goes, but we’ve always known that a properly educated North Carolinian can tackle any challenge and master any new field on God’s green earth. So our task is to make sure that every one of our citizens has that opportunity and that anyone with the drive and the talent can play a role in building the future of this great state.”

AdvanceNC partners include the following community colleges, universities, and workforce development boards.

  • Community Colleges – Alamance, Central Carolina, Durham Tech, Fayetteville Tech, Johnston, Piedmont, Randolph, Sandhills, Vance-Granville, and Wake Tech.
  • Universities – N.C. A&T State University and N.C. State University.
  • Workforce Development Boards – Capital Area, Durham, Kerr-Tar, Lumber River, Mid-Carolina, and Piedmont Triad Regional.

Central Carolina Community College President Dr. Lisa M. Chapman introduced the ceremony with some statistics for the 18-county region. One of them was a huge labor force of 1.5 million — a group that offers a wealth of talent. The goal of AdvanceNC, she said, is to make sure those workers have the right skills to take advantage of the opportunities now available. And that companies can find the highly skilled workers they need — not only now, but for decades to come.

“We are great at attracting businesses to North Carolina and it is great for our residents, because that means family-sustaining wages and that means a great life for North Carolinians,” she said. “But we need to make sure that we don’t simply attract those businesses … but that we do an exceptional job of keeping them here and supporting them in the way that we need to.”

As Gov. Cooper said, “North Carolina is the top state for business thanks to our well trained, talented and diverse workforce. The AdvanceNC initiative will help prepare our students for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”