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A ‘Grow Your Own’ Approach to Workforce Development in Northwestern North Carolina

Tom Barkin and Matt Martin visiting North Carolina’s Surry and Yadkin counties

In April, President Tom Barkin, Regional Executive Matt Martin and Regional Economist Laura Ullrich met with local community and business leaders in North Carolina’s Surry and Yadkin counties to gain a fuller understanding of the economic strengths and opportunities facing the region as part of the Bank’s Community Conversations program.

This Community Conversations visit was a little different from previous visits, as the team welcomed two special guests: Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway from Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast, who were tagging along to document a day in the life of a Federal Reserve Bank president and to see first-hand how on-the-ground, local insights help inform monetary policy.

A Collaborative, Grassroots Approach to Workforce Development

Nestled within the rolling hills of northwestern North Carolina, Surry and Yadkin counties are a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. This picturesque region, steeped in rich history and surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty, offers a comforting blend of Southern charm and modern allure — from the quaint charm of small towns like Mount Airy, the inspiration behind the fictional Mayberry in the Andy Griffith Show, to the sprawling vineyards dotting the landscape. But this region offers more than just a trip down memory lane and a good glass of wine; it’s a vibrant area of culture and history with a mind towards workforce development.

Once one of the area’s top employers, the textile industry took a hit in Surry and Yadkin counties in the 1990s, forcing many residents to look, and sometimes move elsewhere, to find employment. In response to these large job and modest population losses — and aiming to not repeat the past — the community fostered a “grow your own” mentality that nurtures public-private partnerships to cultivate a skilled workforce for the future.

At the heart of this strategy is Surry Yadkin Works, a nonprofit working to support the economic vitality of the region by matching students with the workforce needs of the community. Through collaboration with high schools and community colleges, Surry Yadkin Works extends a lifeline to aspiring young minds through training programs, internships and apprenticeship opportunities with local businesses.

Surry Yadkin Works’ collaborative, grassroots approach to workforce development seems to be working. The program currently boasts an impressive 69% retention rate among participants, and the region’s 3.2% unemployment rate is now below the North Carolina average.

“With 264 students currently enrolled across various initiatives, Surry Yadkin Works is poised for expansion,” said Martin. “But they need additional resources — more staff to build stronger partnerships with even more local businesses — to make that growth a reality.”

Developing Infrastructure to Support a Growing Workforce

Yet, as efforts to attract and maintain a younger workforce to Surry and Yadkin counties continue, the need to develop infrastructure to support a growing population increases, especially when it comes to housing and childcare options.

Currently, the region is undergoing a housing study to help attract large developers to the area, and a large-scale childcare facility that will house up to six childcare centers is in development as well. The latter promises cost-effective solutions through shared resources and administrative services, and audiences statewide are watching in anticipation with its potential to redefine early childhood education.

In Surry and Yadkin counties, the past is one of former industry, while today signals a fresh chapter of collaboration and advancement.

To hear more about this Community Conversation, listen to the full Odd Lots podcast episode below:

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Jim Strader (804) 697-8956 (804) 332-0207 (mobile)