Small-business leaders and advocates sat down with U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan Monday afternoon at the Mint Museum Uptown to discuss the hurdles facing the state’s entrepreneurial community and how those issues are impeding what Hagan says is her No. 1 priority: creating jobs.
Top concerns included: the skills gap in the current workforce, the time and money businesses spend navigating government regulations, and the role crushing student loan debt plays in quelling young people’s entrepreneurial ambitions.
“We can create a better (small business) environment,” Hagan said, after a two-hour meeting with members of her Small Business Advisory Committee, a group she formed in March to advise her on legislative issues and help her develop policy proposals that support North Carolina’s small businesses.
The group meets in person once annually and has three phone conferences throughout the year, says Paul Wetenhall, president of nonprofit business incubator Charlotte-based Ventureprise. Wetenhall is a co-chair of Hagan’s committee.
Hagan, a Democrat, is expected to seek a second term next year. She currently serves on the Senate’s Small Business Committee.
Her North Carolina advisory committee has four co-chairs and more than 15 small-business owners and advocates from around the state. Astrid Chirinos, president of Charlotte’s Latin American Chamber of Commerce, is also a committee member.
Mark Berson, regional advocate for the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, representing North Carolina and the Southeast region, said student loan debt is inhibiting entrepreneurship in one of the most creative, energetic groups: young college graduates.
He says the price tag of a college education is keeping them from taking chances, from starting their own businesses, which could then create jobs and spur economic development.
“We need to help get young people right out of college on an entrepreneurship track,” Berson said. “Because if they don’t do it then, they’ll start with a big company, get married, have a couple of kids, take on more expenses, and then they’ll never get to be entrepreneurs. Or it will be much harder.”
He suggested the government find a way to help alleviate the pressure of student loans for young entrepreneurs.
North Carolina has repeatedly suffered from one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. In July, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate – 8.9 percent – was tied with Rhode Island for third-worst in the nation.
The national unemployment rate for July was 7.4 percent.
Hagan said the growing skills gap in the state is keeping some of the open positions unfilled.
For example, some small businesses in science, technology, engineering and math – the fields collectively known as STEM – can’t find workers with the skill sets they need.
Hagan said one goal of the committee is to find a way to connect skills-based programs at community colleges and vocational schools with employers, so that many students will have jobs lined up before they graduate.
Small businesses in North Carolina employ nearly half of all private workers in the state, according to the SBA Office of Advocacy, which works with the federal government on behalf of small businesses.
But that number could be even higher, said Winslow Sargeant, chief counsel for the SBA’s Office of Advocacy, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to join Monday’s discussion.
He said he wants the committee to discuss government regulations that inundate small-business owners with paperwork and tie up capital that could be spent on new hires.
Hagan, born in Shelby, said she worked in the layaway department of her father’s tire shop, a venture that led him to start a warehouse business.
“I know there are a lot of sleepless nights,” Hagan says.
But, she added, laying out the struggles of the small-business community is the first step toward finding solutions.
“This is the kind of synergy that will make a difference,” Hagan said to the small-business community leaders. “Let’s get to work.”
McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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