New initiative aims to help young adults in the Triad find employment, educational opportunities | local

A high-profile UNC System initiative to better connect young adults with educational and employment opportunities will have a significant Triad focus, including in Forsyth County.

The Carolina Across 100 initiative was unveiled in April 2021 by UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

A network of 13 groups were selected to provide assistance to 37 counties overall, including a Triad group focused on public school systems in Alamance, Davie, Forsyth, Rockingham, Surry, Stokes and Yadkin counties.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools spokesman Chris Runge said he is checking to see if the system has been contacted about the initiative.

It is slated to run at least five years, led by ncIMPACT. The plan is to “support community-driven recovery and build sustainable efforts in all 100 counties by providing human resources, data insights, coaching, facilitation, coordination efforts and program design.”

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The ncIMPACT initiative is a statewide effort launched by the UNC School of Government in 2017 to help local communities use data and evidence to improve conditions and inform decision making.

The young adult-focused “Our State, Our Work” spin-off was announced in March and is projected to last at least two years. New details were disclosed last week.

“As our state addresses inequities created and exacerbated by COVID-19, Carolina Across 100 will connect young people with education and living-wage employment opportunities in North Carolina by bringing community leaders from across the state together to collaborate and bolster one another’s work,” Guskiewicz said in a statement.

A living wage is typically cited in the range of $13 to $15 an hour, compared with the $7.25 minimum wage in North Carolina.

The goal is making available the university’s resources “to help communities deal with the anticipated challenges post-COVID-19,” while also assisting individuals ages 16 to 24 with securing employment providing a living wage.

“It is good to see our flagship university embracing community engagement in a systematic fashion across the state,” said Keith Debbage, a joint professor of Geography and Sustainable Tourism and Hospitality at UNCG.

“It is crucial that the UNC-Chapel Hill program does not overlap and repeat what local communities are already doing, but instead complement and assist in order to elevate competitive advantage.”


In most instances, the 13 participating groups are comprised of business, civic, education, nonprofit, faith-based and government entities.

“Each community determines who needs to be on their team to build an effective and sustainable system to support these young adults as they reconnect to education and work opportunities,” said Anita Brown-Graham, director of the ncIMPACT Initiative and lead coordinator for Carolina Across 100,

The Piedmont Triad Regional Workforce Development Board is leading the local effort through establishing the Triad Career Connect Model.

“This model creates workforce opportunities and exposure to regional employers of interest by collaborating with programs, such as NCWorks’ NextGen program,” the board said.

The board said since the debut of its NextGen effort in 2019, the local program has helped 50 students.

“The collaborative takes advantage of the tremendous opportunity for cross-county collaboration through the sharing of resources and streamlined, complimentary programs,” the workforce development board said.

The Triad counties applied to participate through the Piedmont Triad Regional Workforce Development Board. Counties could have applied to participate individually.

Davidson and Guilford counties did not apply, according to Jessica Dorrance, research director for ncIMPACT.

“While we are extremely excited to be working with all the counties selected for the program, we will be creating and sharing resources from this work that we hope will benefit all counties across the state,” Dorrance said.

“A goal is to share the lessons we learn while working with community collaboratives and allow other counties to implement and adapt those lessons in whatever ways work best for them.”


The COVID-19 pandemic’s initial and ongoing impact on work opportunities for young adults spurred the UNC-Chapel Hill initiative.

The group cited that the unemployment rate for those ages 16 to 24 jumped as high as 24.4% in the first months of the pandemic in 2020, compared with 11.3% for those ages 25 and older.

“Those with the lowest levels of education — below a high school diploma — fared the worst,” according to the group.

However, the group cites that the education and employment challenges facing those ages 16 to 24 predated the pandemic in North Carolina.

“Those 16- to 24-year-olds who are not in school or working had a higher percentage of people living in poverty in 2019,” the group said.

Brown-Graham said the initial goal was getting up to 20 counties to participate.

“We are thrilled that 37 counties made clear their commitment to partner with us for this first program to connect young adults to educational opportunities and living-wage employment,” Brown-Graham said.

The Goals

Carolina Across 100 said it will provide the 13 groups with “a variety of high-value resources,” including:

Evidence-based programming aimed at meeting educational and non-academic needs of Opportunity Youth, those in the 16 to 24 age range;

High demand micro credential training;

Marketing expertise for existing programs;

Guided listening sessions with Opportunity Youth participants;

Technical assistance and resources for employers seeking to hire and retain Opportunity Youth participants;

Storytelling techniques to share the experiences and triumphs of Opportunity Youth;

Information on funding opportunities; and

Grant writing assistance.

The participating groups will begin their work later this month, then meeting for the first in a series of forums at UNC-Chapel Hill in mid-September.

The forums are being conducted so that the groups can share ideas and collaborative on best practices.

The Carolina Across 100 team will conduct site visits across participating counties to facilitate the program’s implementation.


The Our State, Our Work initiative faces several systemic educational and employment challenges that existed well before the pandemic, but have become more pronounced over the past 26 months.

“Concurrent with the labor shortage has been a labor reallocation,” said Michael Walden, an economics professor at NC State University.

“For example, it is estimated at least 10% of workers in hospitality, warehousing and manufacturing firms prior to the pandemic have acquired new skills that have allowed them to move to better paying occupations.”

Those are employment sectors typically filled by young adults seeking their first real-world work experiences, particularly those will less than a university degree.

Walden said that even with many corporations and nonprofit health groups increasing their minimum wages in a range of $12 to $22 an hour, other businesses have not provide salary increases to help their employees stay even or ahead of inflation.

Walden said that for 2021 and so far in 2022, hourly wage gains in those industry sectors “have barely kept up with the rising inflation rate.”

With the state jobless rate at a pandemic low of 3.4% in April, “it is hard to imagine the headline unemployment rate going that much further down,” said Patrick McHugh, research manager with left-leaning NC Budget and Tax Center.

“There are certainly plenty of counties with room to drive the unemployment rate down. The total size of the labor force in more than half of North Carolina counties remains below pre-COVID-19 levels.

McHugh said that in “some of the hottest job markets, it’s really about helping more people reconnect with the labor market, which won’t drive the unemployment the headline rate down much, if at all.”

Walden said the Our State, Our Work initiative should focus on addressing a need for worker training.

“There is large agreement among economists of more disruption coming to the labor market,” Walden said.

“That’s not only as a result of the pandemic, but also due to rapid changes in technology, which will lead firms to re-evaluate what machines and tech can do versus what humans can do.”

Disruptions ahead

These kinds of educational and employment initiatives have to be nimble and quick to respond to trends and employer needs, Walden said.

“The two necessary components in successfully addressing this upcoming disruption will be identifying the necessary skills firms will want in a worker, and providing rapid training in these skills, both for existing workers who find their occupation has been downsized, and for new workers who want to quickly move in to the labor market without years spent in classrooms,” Walden said.

“This rapid training could be provided by existing educational institutions particularly high schools and community colleges and/or by apprenticeships at firms.”

Rural counties should be primary beneficiaries of the One State One Work initiative, said John Quinterno, principal with South by North Strategies Ltd., a Chapel Hill research company specializing in economic and social policy.

“Young adults who haven’t finished high school and aren’t working face long-term challenges to building a solid foundation and future for themselves,” Quinterno said.

“Especially in more rural communities, this can create long-term challenges for local employers and communities more broadly.”

Quinterno said that to the extent the UNC-Chapel Hill initiatives “can help supplement existing resources and fill gaps in existing community-level initiatives, those initiatives are more apt to yield success.

“That task seems consistent with the university’s public service mission to the people of North Carolina.”

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