The grey clouds that loomed over the Charlotte skyline Monday afternoon are a metaphor of sorts for the future of the U.S. economy.
They represent some of the factors that could complicate business both locally and nationally — including tariffs, political uncertainty, housing and an aging workforce, according to Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. She spoke during the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance’s annual economic forecast conference in uptown Monday.
Businesses can prepare for those storms before they hit, said Swonk, who anticipates an economic downturn beginning around this time next year. “If immigration continues to slow, we will have a contraction in the labor force by 2020 because retiring Baby Boomers (are) not being replaced by enough incoming workers,” for instance, Swonk said.
“Now is the time to look for where you can seek shelter to weather the next storm,” she said before a panel discussion at the Westin.
Leaders of Bank of America, Duke Energy and Sealed Air — some of the largest publicly traded companies that employ more than 22,000 combined in the region — said Charlotte’s economy has roared back to life in the years following the recession a decade ago. But all three leaders said that they’re busy working to prepare a new generation of workers as the economy changes.
One way to address that is investing in digital capabilities, including tech workers and automation, said Lynn Good, CEO of Charlotte-based Duke Energy, which employs about 6,000 people in Charlotte.
Companies like Duke are working to realign resources so that people aren’t doing repetitive work that machines could, Good said. The company’s also investing in tools like data analytics, drones and mobile devices for field workers, she added.
“You may be getting texts from Duke Energy around outages. That’s not a functionality we would have offered five years ago,” Good said.
All three leaders also said that businesses have a responsibility to address community issues like income inequality in order to make Charlotte a more attractive place to live and do business for white collar and blue collar workers alike.
Sealed Air CEO Ted Doheny said he recently joined the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, which was formed in 2015 and includes more than two dozen local CEOs who work on everything from negotiating with lawmakers in Raleigh to addressing early childhood education in Charlotte.
“The leaders are talking about early education, what can we do, and not just talking about it, but doing something about it, making sure we catch people early in life so that they don’t go off the rails,” Doheny said. Sealed Air employs about 1,000 people at its headquarters off Tyvola Road.
Employers also have to work to match jobs that don’t require higher education with young workers, said Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, which employs roughly 15,000 people in the Charlotte metro area.
Moynihan cited the call centers that large companies like Bank of America and Duke Energy have in Charlotte as ways that local corporations create job opportunities outside of the typical office setting.
“It’s incumbent upon larger employers to create opportunities that help improve economic mobility,” Moynihan said.
Praising recent announcements like Honeywell’s decision to relocate its headquarters to Charlotte, the panelists said Charlotte needs to continue to be aggressive in pursuing new businesses to strengthen and diversify the local economy, especially before the economy sours.
Two economic development groups, the Charlotte Regional Partnership and the Charlotte Chamber, previously were a bit confusing before they merged, Moynihan said. Their recent combination, he added, positions Charlotte well “to make a good pitch” for itself.
“You want to be good (at attracting new business) when it’s a good economy, so that when there is a slowdown, you’re prepared,” Good said.