November 2022: Anita Brown-Graham
Professor, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government and Director, ncIMPACT Initiative
Providing Post-Pandemic Solutions for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery Efforts
“We were all also amazed by the extent and diversity of collaborations among local governments, business leaders and community groups that rallied to respond to the economic crisis. Many of these were new partnerships with enormous impact for their communities. I hope they are studied for some time to come. We must not allow ourselves to forget the power that comes from working together.”
As you reflect on your role and your organization’s work over the last several years, how have the economic recovery projects fit into ncIMPACT’s other efforts?
ncIMPACT’s goal is to help communities in North Carolina deal with the most complex problems they may face. Our role is to provide communities with good data and access to evidence-based practices that move the needle. We help communities bring stakeholders together to consider the data and practices as they determine their path. Then, we help them facilitate and implement the strategies that go along with their desired direction. In this project, we were able to use survey data covering every region of the state to help communities see the primary challenges being faced statewide, compare their regional data with that of other regions and hear in our webinars some promising practices by communities (of differing types and levels of capacity) as they responded to short- and long-term COVID-19 challenges.
What was the biggest takeaway from ncIMPACT’s original economic recovery project during the 2020-21 research and focus groups?
When we created the webinars for community leaders across the state to come together to discuss the survey data and hear innovative responses to the economic effects of COVID by others, we recognized that many communities remained in crisis. We were unsure whether community leaders would have the time to attend. Much to our surprise, the webinars drew hundreds of attendees. In addition, some participants requested additional webinars for further peer learning discussions. We were all also amazed by the extent and diversity of collaborations among local governments, business leaders and community groups that rallied to respond to the economic crisis. Many of these were new partnerships with enormous impact for their communities. I hope they are studied for some time to come. We must not allow ourselves to forget the power that comes from working together.
What did ncIMPACT’s project reveal as factors preventing potential workers from joining the workforce?
There may be more reasons for changes in the workforce than we have fingers and toes on which to count them. However, there are some commonly cited reasons: Some workers lost their lives. Many workers close to retirement went ahead and retired early. Other workers had to leave their jobs due to dependent care issues for older adults or children, most commonly due to facility and school closures. Women were disproportionately affected in this way. When some families found they could survive on one income, these workers did not return to the workforce. Of course, many others were out of the workforce because they were abruptly put out of a job due to COVID-related restrictions.
What are the next steps for your research, and what do you hope to focus on in the coming year related to this topic?
In the face of a very tight labor market, the new project focuses on a deeper dive on the reasons potential workers have not joined or rejoined the workforce. We want to understand better what other reasons are keeping them away. We also want to learn what educational and other institutions can provide to address barriers identified and prepare potential workers for an ever-changing world of work. Additionally, we plan to host focus groups with employers who are challenged to fill vacant positions. We will explore the benefits and incentives they are willing to provide to recruit and retain workers. Finally, we hope this work helps us gain insights into whether we are facing a structural shift in our labor market or a time limited moment of recovery from COVID-19.