Will WNC Kids Be Able to Come Home?

| By Leslie Frey |

It’s been named one of the Tastiest, Hippest, Most Romantic, Most Beautiful, Happiest, Most Alive places to live. People of all generations are flocking to live in Western North Carolina.

freyOver the last 30 years, families have settled here to raise healthy, confident children. Most parents who choose to live in the mountains prioritize quality of life over promotions and salary growth.

As their children approach adulthood, the parents of WNC want their kids to have the same opportunity as those from Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham: to be able to come home after completing professional training and college – if they choose – and find good jobs.

But are there good jobs in the Asheville region for WNC kids to come home to as they start their professional lives?
This important question is being asked at dinner tables as well as boardrooms across the region.

At a presentation at the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board on May 24, 2016, Jeff DeBellis, Director of Economic & Policy Analysis for the NC Department of Commerce, explored the question: “How do you explain the disconnect where most employers (in WNC) contend they have good jobs that they cannot fill while most individuals in the region contend there are few good jobs available locally?”

Nathan Ramsey, Director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, adds that a “good job pays in the top 50% of all wage earners which would be any job paying $38,000 (or about $19/hour) or more.”

According to these definitions, both DeBellis and Ramsey agree there are many good jobs in various fields across the region.

Heidi Reiber, Director of Research with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County, agrees, too. “Major employers in the area offer excellent occupational opportunities.” She mentions “one list that represents thousands of job postings in the region that pay at least $15 an hour” and that “in the Asheville Metro the majority of our sectors are adding jobs.”

We can project that in the next 10-20 years, young professionals with college degrees, advanced trade skills, and tech/IT experience from our region will have good job opportunities to come home to. Reiber shares, “Barring anything unexpected, … projections offer continued growth patterns.”

The complication comes, however, if young professionals have competing job offers elsewhere in the state. According to DeBellis’s report, the “average wage (in WNC is) … $8,000 or 17% lower” than the average wage across North Carolina. Even more striking, a student who gained the knowledge, skills, and experience to be offered a High Tech job could make on average “36%” more in other regions of North Carolina than WNC. The exception to this trend occurs in the healthcare sector where “[local] wages are $3,000 higher or 7% above the NC average.”

Kids growing up in WNC will need to think strategically about the pros and cons of living in this area at the start of their careers. They need to understand that the cost of living in this area is “greater than the state average,” according to Ramsey. Simply by living in this region, they will face an income gap between higher living costs and lower wages that their peers in other parts of the Southeast won’t.

At the same time, the business climate in WNC offers benefits to young professionals that can’t be found in bigger markets in the South. Reiber points out: “in the Asheville Metro region, 95% of businesses have fewer than 50 employees.” An entry-level employee at a small business may find exciting “opportunities to wear many hats,” “explore or discover (on the job) where their strengths and preferences lie,” and find “more visibility… along with the opportunity to interact more closely with leaders and others who can serve as mentors.” A young professional’s career growth may have a steeper curve in the smaller business world of WNC than in the larger corporate pools in other regions.

Additionally, WNC is making great waves nationally. Reiber points out that “Popular Mechanics recently ranked Asheville the #2 Best Startup City in America.” The next 20 years may prove to be the most productive and exciting times for young professionals in WNC.

According to Ramsey “the challenge of retaining our younger residents has been ongoing for many decades.” Parents and educators in WNC can help lay a foundation that will begin changing that trend with these six strategies:

1) Help students explore companies and opportunities in WNC during middle and high school

Students need multiple opportunities to learn about the work opportunities that are possible. Cooperative relationships with education organizations and employers can allow students to see a variety of jobs at various times throughout their educational journeys.

Field trips to such cutting-edge businesses such as GE Aviation, Moog Music, and AvL Technologies can inspire students to see the global impact made by companies right here. “Finding ways to get students interested about what companies are making here and the advanced technologies that are being used can engage students in a conversation about career paths,” says Reiber.

An example of such a cooperative can be found with the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy (CAYLA). Erika Germer, the Founding Director, highlights the program’s success working with area high school students. Since its inception in 2007, CAYLA places students at internships with local businesses and government offices to “open young people’s eyes to the many career options available in our community.” Germer states, “the City has a vested interest in supporting our community’s youth as they pursue higher education, and CAYLA allows them to develop the social capital and networks that make returning to Asheville more likely.” The effort is working. “Of the 15 CAYLA alumni who graduated from college in 2016, seven are already back in Asheville with others intending to do so in the coming months. The majority have already found full-time jobs in town; others are working part-time while preparing for graduate school.”

2) Help students explore careers before shopping for colleges

Students need to dream and explore their entrepreneurial visions while also conducting realistic research to guide career plans. When students take surveys and assessments to personally match their strengths and interests to career options, they become more equipped to make critical decisions about their future options. Hands-on experiences at workplaces also help inform career decisions.

We also need to debunk conventional wisdom about the value of college degrees. As Ramsey points out, “There are often many opportunities for individuals to obtain a high paying job here without earning a four-year degree. Skilled trades are an excellent example where welders, machinists, electricians, and others can earn $40,000 per year and up to start, with wages over $70,000 per year for someone with experience. Also, there are articulation agreements that allow the student to continue their education and earn a four-year degree, often with financial assistance from their employer.”

Once students have adequately explored strong career matches for their strengths, interest, and goals, they can consider how much of a college investment will be a practical choice.

3) Help students cultivate connections and mentors

Mentorship is the most powerful of the six key experiences identified by the GallupPurdue Index that leads to engaging employment following college graduation. Employees who are engaged at work contribute more on the job and have five times higher likelihood of experiencing well-being in all areas of their life beyond work.

Reiber points out what we all know when she says, “Networks can be very valuable along the career path.” As most adults enter the working world, they learn strategies for networking. These principles are not intuitive but they are easy to learn. Students can learn how to cultivate their networks in high school.

This also means learning how to ask for help – something many students struggle with. By teaching students how to build connections, nurture networks, and develop mentors, they learn one of the most critical life skills. As they participate in school, jobs, summer programs, they can strengthen relationships with the key adults they encounter.

4) Help students make marketable major choices

College students from WNC need to strategically choose a major if they expect to find good job opportunities open to them after graduation back home. Ramsey reiterates, “Jobs are more easily obtained in some degree fields compared to others. Any degrees in the STEM area offer many opportunities which would include healthcare, engineering, advanced manufacturing, technology/IT, and more.”

With intentional planning and guidance, students can find ways to take classes that strike a balance between passion and preparation for career development.

5) Help students build relevant skills through work, internships, and volunteer experiences

In DeBellis’s report, at least 50% of local employers expressed difficulty finding job candidates with adequate “work experience, education/credentials, technical skills, and soft skills.” Students need to be aware that employers are seeking all four of these areas in an employee. According to Reiber, “if students are willing to start at an entry level, many opportunities may arise as they learn and grow their skillsets.”

Whenever possible, students should try to utilize their WNC networking connections to find seasonal work, internships, volunteer opportunities or create academic projects relevant to their desired career field. “Work experience is critical because employers want applicants who are ‘job ready,’” according to Ramsey.

6) Help students keep debt low

As Reiber points out, because the overall wages are markedly lower than the rest of the state and “the region’s overall cost of living is a little higher compared to other regions in the Southeast, it makes sense that students be conscious of debt” accumulated from college costs.

Ramsey agrees. “Certainly an individual needs to find the right career for reasons beyond financial concerns but they need to consider potential earnings before going into debt for student loans.”

These six strategies form a solid foundation to allow the kids who grow up in WNC to come home with empowering connections, education, skills, and finances. Knowledge is power. Choice is freedom. You can help support the kids in our community to have the power and freedom to live at home or travel the world as they desire.

Leslie Frey is the founder of Off-Trail On Purpose, a service helping high school and college students find their direction in life. Through career planning, college application advising, and student success coaching, Off-Trail On Purpose amplifies the value of educational investments with 1:1 guidance with a trusted advisor. You can learn more at www.offtrailonpurpose.com or call 828-581-9821.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker