When Wolfspeed — a silicon carbide manufacturer based in Durham, North Carolina — announced plans in September 2022 to build a plant in a rural community 50 miles away, it was clear that a new approach would be needed to recruit enough workers for the highly specialized facility. The company’s efforts to cultivate a sustainable workforce pipeline highlight the value of private-public partnerships in growing enterprises, careers and communities – a topic explored in depth in a panel discussion at the Frontiers of Business Conference: Workforce Disrupted in October.
Panelists included Shawnice Meador, senior director of global talent management at Wolfspeed; Margaret Roberton, vice president of workforce development at Central Carolina Community College; Pamela Howze, national director of workforce strategies at the National Institute for Innovation and Technology; and Jerry Jones, executive director for the Center for Workforce Engagement at Durham Technical Community College.
Wolfspeed, which makes silicon carbide semiconductor chips for use in electric vehicles and other applications, is constructing a manufacturing facility at the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site. The company intends to create about 1,800 skilled jobs by 2030 at the silicon carbide wafer facility, which will cover 2 million square feet and be the largest of its kind in the world, Wolfspeed says.
While North Carolina has had recent success in attracting companies, more work is needed to ensure that the workers these firms require will be ready to fill the new positions, according to Roberton. Roberton pointed to community colleges and their important role in developing a skilled workforce, as these institutions help employers determine the skills their workers need to develop while also helping companies understand the communities their employees come from.
When Wolfspeed announced the new facility, the company was already working with the Center for Workforce Engagement. “We work with partners like Wolfspeed to figure out what skills people need to build in order to be well positioned for jobs and growth, [which includes] technical skills plus employability skills,” said Jones.
Meador said the company initially focused on upskilling existing operators, facilitating career advancement by offering free programs in collaboration with Durham Tech. Given the large number of workers the new facility will require, however, Wolfspeed can no longer rely exclusively on its internal workforce to meet its needs. The increase in companies coming to the area is compounding the issue, tightening an already tight labor market.
“Companies are really having to think differently about [their pipeline] and where they’re going to get people,” said Howze. “It’s going to take every community college and every K-12 educational institution in a 100-mile radius to get this going.”
An area of frustration, panelists said, is that institutions of higher education often operate in silos. Roberton said that the state’s 58 community colleges together with the University of North Carolina system and other institutions provide tremendous resources, but navigating them in search of opportunities for synergy can be a major challenge. “Every phone number is different, every website is different, and every program is different,” she said.
Addressing this challenge, an innovative initiative called AdvanceNC recently launched with the mission to develop a robust talent pipeline to support the groundswell of economic growth occurring in central North Carolina. By bringing together 10 community colleges, two universities and seven workforce boards that cover an 18-county footprint, this regional coalition helps connect the pieces needed to create a workforce pipeline. The effort also serves as a single resource for the state’s current employers — as well as companies looking to move to the area.
The AdvanceNC approach is a novel way for educational institutions and workforce boards to work together. Roberton said this type of cooperation is critical for developing the large numbers of workers that companies like Wolfspeed need. “We’re going to really think about how we can come together very intentionally — not just on a project but also as a structure — to respond to workforce needs,” she said. This involves bringing employers and other stakeholders into the conversation as partners to collaborate on solutions.
Meador said AdvanceNC is exactly the type of creative solution the company was hoping for. “We’re all in on helping make it successful,” she said. Although AdvanceNC is focused on North Carolina’s central region, the model could be replicated elsewhere.
Panelists discussed the importance of helping communities prepare for growth and the need for companies to build relationships with the communities where their workers come from. These relationships are particularly important in manufacturing because these industries demand a large number of workers, most of whom tend to come from the local area.
Durham Tech employs a holistic approach to workforce development, striving to understand and meet the needs of its students inside and outside the classroom. The institution, for instance, maintains a food pantry and participates in an affordable housing project that helps its students and some members of the local community maintain stable housing. Jones pointed out that the educational opportunities and workforce development spurred by companies like Wolfspeed can act as an equalizer by giving opportunities to local underserved people, opening doors not only at the entry level but also where individuals can continue to grow their career.
Roberton said that Chatham County – where the new Wolfspeed plant is being built – has been intentional about creating affordable housing opportunities and finding ways for people to live and work in the same area, supporting a good work-life balance. Meador said Wolfspeed is strategizing how to be welcoming to the workforce in nearby Siler City, which has a large Hispanic population; for example, it will make sure it has dual-language leadership teams in place. Meador also said new manufacturers coming into an area must make sure prospective employees are aware of the various opportunities available to them.
As the state continues to attract new advanced manufacturing facilities and growth in other business areas, collaborative approaches like AdvanceNC will be key for shaping a skilled labor force that fuels economic expansion while supporting the needs of both the workers and their communities.