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Commerce secretary: N.C. seeing influx of jobless people

The push to lower North Carolina’s high unemployment rate is being slowed by a persistent skills gap and a continued influx of jobless people moving to the state, according to Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.

She made those observations Tuesday during a speech at the Ritz Carlton to CREW Charlotte, a professional group for women in commercial real estate.

Asked during a question-and-answer period to name the main barriers keeping the state from lowering its 8.3 percent unemployment rate, Decker said the state keeps attracting job seekers who move in with hopes of finding work.

“That’s driving this headwind that we’re always sort of butting against,” she said. “We’ve got to create jobs at a much higher volume than we have been able to do at this point.”

She also said the state continues to suffer from a skills gap, leaving advanced manufacturing firms and others unable to find qualified workers among the many jobless residents.

Decker said the problems require multiple approaches, especially since the state’s struggling rural areas have different economic development challenges than rebounding urban areas such as Charlotte and the Research Triangle Park.

“You can get a great (economic development) catch in the Charlotte area, but at the same time, you’ve got to be casting your net to get targeted catches in the more rural parts of the state,” she said.

She said that’s partly why officials are moving to privatize efforts to market and sell the state to corporate relocation prospects.

A new statewide public-private partnership is being created to take those functions from the Commerce Department early next year. Gov. Pat McCrory has said the change will make the state nimbler and more aggressive in pursuing corporate relocations.

Decker didn’t provide any new details on the rollout of the new group, but she reiterated her belief that it will make the state more competitive with its neighbors by streamlining the number of agencies and processes that prospective companies must confront.

“We’re going to focus our effort on the customer with one-stop-shopping,” she said.

Some critics have questioned, however, whether privatization will reduce transparency and open the door to ethical abuses. Decker later said during an interview at the Observer that she is taking care to protect against such abuses by following safeguards in a related Senate bill that was derailed by a last-minute fracking amendment.

Others have expressed concern about the smaller regional economic development groups around the state, which could see their role diminished.

The state has cut its financial support for the Charlotte Regional Partnership and other groups, but Decker said such groups can continue working as long as there is local support. She said she and officials from the regional groups representing Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro are going to New York Thursday to meet with consultants to promote the state’s urban corridor along Interstate 85.

“It’s great to see them cooperating,” she said. “That’s not the way it worked in the past. So the changes are driving behavior.”

In the interview, she also weighed in about Tuesday’s news that US Airways and American Airlines have reached a settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that lets their planned merger proceed.

“Good news, I think. Very good news.”

Frazier: 704-358-5145; Twitter: @ericfraz
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