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Charlotte needs better-trained workers to compete globally, leaders say at summit

The Charlotte region can grow into a global economic powerhouse, but it must overcome challenges in educating and training workers to win in the worldwide competition for jobs and industry.

Hundreds of Charlotte-area leaders received that message Wednesday during a half-day seminar on how to keep the region competitive on a global scale.

The summit, held at Central Piedmont Community College’s Harris Campus, drew a who’s-who of local, state and national leaders in education, government and industry.

Most agreed that as the region’s economic recovery continues, Charlotte Douglas International Airport and its neighboring Norfolk Southern intermodal facility serve as powerful magnets to attract companies from around the globe.

But there’s more work to do, the speakers agreed.

Mayor Patrick Cannon said that, in a time of tight budgets, government and businesses need to join forces to get major civic projects done.

Gov. Pat McCrory said North Carolina must compete against surrounding regions and states, as well as other parts of the globe.

He said his administration has tried to improve prospects by paying down some of the state’s debts and lowering corporate tax rates. He added that companies still won’t come if they can’t find workers qualified to handle increasingly technical jobs.

The region and state must do better at educating children in science and math and offering training that helps meet companies’ growing need for workers skilled in information systems, engineering and healthcare technology, McCrory said.

“We are going to have to be more flexible in the academic institutions,” McCrory said. “If right now the market has too many lawyers, which it does … why aren’t we shifting some of the money from the law schools over to the engineering schools?”

During a later session, one business leader received applause when he criticized declines in N.C. teacher pay.

“We’re losing teachers at an alarming rate,” said Clifton Vann, president of Charlotte technology provider Livingston & Haven. “I can’t think of a strategy where we come out on top by underfunding education.”

Other themes that emerged:

• Advanced manufacturing challenges. Several speakers said high-tech manufacturing is on the rise, but trained workers are in short supply. Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemens USA, suggested too few young people are considering advanced manufacturing careers.

“I think it’s the No. 1 pathway to America’s new middle class,” he said. “But it’s going to take a branding effort” to get young people interested.

• Tough competition overseas. Business leaders say they face strong competition from companies in Europe, Asia and South America. Dan DiMicco, chairman emeritus of Nucor, said improving the workforce means little if companies don’t get relief from unfair trade practices in countries like China.

“We can’t ship steel to China. The government won’t let us,” he said. “We’re on a playing field that’s tilted.”

• UNC Charlotte’s importance. Several speakers mentioned the central role the region’s biggest university plays in educating tech-savvy workers and nurturing research and development.

Spiegel and Vann spoke of the importance of UNCC’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center, which helps train engineers for the region’s growing energy hub.

However, when McCrory was asked about challenges the region faces, he mentioned its lack of a high-profile university.

“UNC Charlotte engineering is getting that reputation now, but we’re still looking for that pedigree, that national stage,” he said. “We’re going to have to continue to market that.”

The conference, sponsored by CPCC and the Charlotte Business Journal, was the brainchild of CPCC President Tony Zeiss, retired Superior Court Judge Chase Saunders, urban planner Michael Gallis and magazine publisher John Paul Galles.

Frazier: 704-358-5145; @Ericfraz on Twitter
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