Results are in — here’s what 700+ WNC employers have to say about job growth, local talent, and hiring challenges.

January 31, 2019

It’s not yet scientifically possible to read the minds of hundreds of regional employers. But a sophisticated new survey provided by the NC Chamber and RTI International has equipped our region with the next best thing—the State of our Workforce: WNC survey.

“We expect the results of this survey to spur a lot of conversation and alignment of initiatives among our community partners. And we’re super excited to be given this opportunity to use this robust tool without the cost and investment of having to develop it,” said the Chamber’s Project Manager April Brown, who launched the survey in partnership with the Economic Development Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe County and Mountain Area Workforce Development Board six months ago.

Supported by the efforts of sixty community partners, the State of our Workforce: WNC survey collected input from more than 720 employers in ten different industries across ten counties, informing an up-to-date snapshot of local employers’ hiring challenges, where they source local talent, and expected growth in the next three years. The results can be downloaded here.

Surprising increase in available jobs

One of the biggest surprises from the survey is the expected growth for businesses of all sizes.

“While we can say we are surprised by these growth projections, it does mirror economic trends across the country, which means many communities are facing the same workforce and retention challenges,” noted Clark Duncan, the Chamber’s Senior VP of Economic Development.

More than two-thirds of respondents expect their workforce to grow in the next three years—amounting to as many as 26,700 new jobs. The most growth is anticipated from medium-sized companies that have 50-250 employers. When examined by industry, the largest growth is expected in the manufacturing industry (which may hire up to 7,500), followed by the restaurant and hospitality sector that may hire up to 6,600 in the next 3 years.

This growth projection for the 10-county region represents the equivalent of a 7% increase in our current labor force in the next 3 years. To put that in context, our labor force only grew by an estimated 1% from December 2017 to December 2018.

“That said, we know we currently have thousands of unfilled jobs today in the broader Asheville region, indicating the job growth opportunity exists immediately,” said Brown.

“We are glad to see employers are growing in trend with our growing population, but we also have to figure out how to attract new talent to our region and tap into untapped populations in our region in order to fill these positions.”

What credentials and training do these employers seek?

58% of the survey respondents desire applicants with community college associates degrees and certificates and 49% seek professional certificates and training, while 50% seek 4-year degrees.

“This shows how important community colleges are for our region,” said Brown. “It also delivers an important message to young people and those who give them guidance. A fair question to ask yourself is—where are the job opportunities and what is the best way for me to gain the skills I need to excel in that industry?”

In addition to this formal training, employers reported four soft skills as the most difficult to find in the workforce: responsibility and self discipline, taking initiative, professionalism, and critical thinking. There was only small variation by industry in these results.

Chamber president Kit Cramer, who has spearheaded initiatives to increase early childhood education funding, says quality early education can go a long way in better developing these soft skills.

“Kids need to learn soft skills throughout their lives but in order to learn these skills well, they’ve got to start in their earliest days. That means quality care and educational preparation during childcare, pre-k and grade school years,” Cramer said.

When hiring, employers could benefit from casting a wider net

There is room for improvement in the way companies source their employment.

Over 70% of employers rely on professional networks and family and friends for recruitment. Friends and family networks are the most common source for talent for small businesses with less than 50 employees, while medium (50-500 employees) and large companies (500+ employees) rely on online job portals more. However, only 24% of companies reported that they recruit through community colleges and only 19% use internship programs.

“This inspires several important questions like—what are the limitations to relying so heavily on existing networks? And what about online job portals is not working for small businesses? Also, what needs to be done to increase the use of colleges, universities, and internships for job placement?”

In short, there’s an opportunity here to diversify the tools that businesses use to source talent in our region—especially in a time like this when employers need more than ever to expand their typical talent pools, said Brown.

Apprenticeships can help bridge the talent gap

Using apprenticeships as a professional development tool is another way that employers can better find the talent they need, suggested Mountain Area Workforce Development Board director Nathan Ramsey.

While 32% of employers said they seek out apprentices in their future workforce, only 27% plan to use apprenticeship as a tool. This discrepancy widens when examining the responses from industries with the most expected job growth. In skilled trades like construction, 63% seek apprentice candidates while only 48% plan to develop their own apprentices. This gap also exists in the manufacturing sector where 51% desire apprenticed candidates but only 38% plan on providing them.

“There’s a gap and opportunity here,” said Brown. “We can impact the growth of both of these industries by making apprenticeship programs more robust in our region.”

“Solutions are already happening but not at the proper scale. The question is—how do we scale this up to the level we need?” Ramsey added.

Next steps and takeaways  

“Given that this survey is a snapshot in time, there’s a shelf-life to this information. Therefore we’re working hard to deliver this information to employers, educators, general public, and other relevant industry organizations,” Brown said.

“We’re also currently evaluating these results to identify ways that we can better align initiatives to meet the needs of employers, especially small business employers.”

As the community looks for new ways to optimize the workforce, scaling programming like NEXT AVL, a mentorship program that helps 4-year degree students transition into the professional workplace, and the bi-annual WNC Career Expo will continue to serve as effective places for sourcing talent.

Brown also emphasized the importance of new americans and foreign-born residents being welcomed and attracted to the region, especially when taking into consideration that an increased immigrant population could significantly boost our workforce numbers. The Chamber has openly supported this kind of comprehensive immigration reform, and openly backed an immigration policy last April in response to the government’s decision to begin phasing out DACA.

If your organization is interested in a formal presentation of this information, please contact April Brown at

Special thanks to the EDC’s internal research team, who has partnered with EMSI on additional next steps and analysis.