Some businesses in the Cape Fear region continue to be optimistic about hiring, despite the economic challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data recently released from a local collaborative survey on workforce needs.
The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Cape Fear Collective and more than 50 regional organizations partnered in distributing a survey to capture the business and workforce development needs across a six-county region over the next three years.
The collaborative partnered with Raleigh-based nonprofit RTI International, which conducted the survey and analysis, garnering nearly 500 responses from a mix of business sectors across the region.
The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce hosted an online event Tuesday with regional officials to discuss the results of the survey. Cape Fear Collective also released the full survey results online
The survey, called Cape Fear Talent, was conducted March through July, and 82% of the responses came from New Hanover County. Respondents represented small, medium and large businesses across many different sectors, Michael Hogan, economic development analyst with RTI International, said during a presentation online Tuesday.
"We launched this survey during the pandemic and economic crisis. While the survey itself was not designed to be a COVID-19 pandemic response survey, we really quickly pivoted to understand that we're going to be facing a tough jobs recovery over the next couple of years and how can we best inform that for the region," Hogan said.
Of those companies surveyed, 56% said they were planning to grow their workforce over the next three years. Three percent of firms responding said they were planning to downsize.
"So amid the pandemic and this jobs downturn, businesses are still expressing optimism about hiring. But it's lower than peer regions in previous years," he said. "So what we are optimistic about and what the data shows us is that companies are still planning for growth and they are expencting to hire between 9,600 and 17,500 new employees in the next three years."
There is a large divergence across industries in terms of how they are viewing recovery from the pandemic, he added.
Industries showing optimism in job growth include businesses in the health care, IT, logistics and life sciences industries, Hogan said, with the highest job growth areas in health care, professional services and IT.
The life sciences and logistics industry in the region also stood out, with logistics and warehousing perhaps an emerging area that will diversify the regional economy and bring new workforce opportunities for the area, he said.
Meanwhile, there is a less optimistic growth outlook for sectors such as public services, restaurant, retail and hospitality, he said.
"Particularly in a region that has such a strong tourism-based economy, the responses from restaurants and hospitality with only 39% of companies saying that they plan to grow in the next three years, and over 12% saying they plan to downsize; those represent a much less optimistic outlook on hiring ...," Hogans said.
The less optimistic outlook in hospitality sectors will be a challenge for the area's coastal economy, which relies on tourism for some of its income, he said.
Also highlighted by the survey as a need for future job growth was education and professional skills among job applicants, he said.
Companies are looking for a little of everything in terms of education, including professional certifications, community college degrees, four-year degrees and apprenticeships.
"One input we got from a lot of companies and a lot of comments that they sent us as a part of the survey was that in addition to looking at how companies want to build their future workforce, they're facing a challenge in how to upskill their existing workforce," Hogan said, adding that transition to remote work and digital technologies have companies looking for staff that are able to adapt quickly to changing business scenarios.
Responding businesses are also seeking certain soft skills and employee qualities in their workforce, some of the top skills being responsibility, self-discipline, critical thinking and taking initiative, he said.
Hogan also said there are underutilized resources in the region for networking, recruiting and hiring.
Overall, businesses responding to the survey rated the area's talent pipeline at a 2.88 out of 5, which Hogan noted was slightly above average but with a lot of room for improvement.
Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington chamber, said that the chamber is going to share the data with policymakers across the state to advocate for changes that need to be made alongside educational and workforce development institutions to address the workforce pipeline, even at the grade-school level.
The data will also be used to build new programs and enhance existing ones, and facilitate future discussions with employers.
"The region is positioned to recover from this economic crisis, but jobless recovery is going to look really different across industries ... growth is going to be pretty uneven," Hogan said. "So, there are opportunities and there are challenges in the kinds of jobs and the workforce needs that companies are going to have in the next couple of years."