Durham’s unemployment is low, but county leaders still want to make sure those already living here have their best shot at new jobs.
The region has seen steady job growth in the last five years. Durham County’s unemployment rate now is 3.3 percent. A couple of months ago it was 2.8 percent. Both are lower than in about 20 years, said Paul Grantham, the chair of the Durham Workforce Development Board.
Andre Pettigrew, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said they are focusing on helping those just getting out of high school, who are justice-involved and who don’t have enough training. The city will also increase its paid internships from 200 to 300 this summer, he said, and wants that number to reach 1,000.
Pettigrew said they especially want to help people find jobs that pay living wages in four areas:
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▪ Health and life sciences
▪ Advanced manufacturing
▪ Information technology
And they’d like Durham jobs to go to Durham residents.
In January, the county commissioners approved a $750,000 economic development incentive forbiotechnology company Avexis, bringing 200 new jobs to Durham, said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow.
“How do we get our residents into those jobs?” Reckhow asked. She referenced a 2017 study by Duke University public policy students that reported in 2014, nearly 1 in 4 Durham County residents worked in Wake County. Meanwhile, commuting from Wake into Durham had increased 64 percent between 2002 and 2014.
The private sector isn’t providing enough paid internships, she added. “The city and county have stepped up big time. But what can our private sector do in that regard?” she asked.
Grantham said they want to increase the workforce pool by creating a pipeline of Durham residents already interested in pursuing careers here starting in high school.
Some county commissioners want to start even earlier.
“I hope you reach out to DPS [Durham Public Schools] and engage students as early as middle school,” Reckhow said. “By the time they go to high school, in ninth grade, a lot of them may have mentally checked out ... We need to get them excited earlier.”
Commissioner James Hill said that while students need to be 16 to work, Economic and Workforce Development could still reach out when they are younger.
“To really bring that interest, it is going to start in the last few years of elementary school and middle school,” he said. “I just implore you to really focus on the middle-school kids.”
“There just seems to be a core of poverty in Durham that we have to break. We keep doing these same programs, keep saying we’re doing the same things, and we don’t seem to reach people. The people we need to talk to — they are not in this room right now. We are going to have to go out and talk to people,” he said.
Hill said they need to tell to students in fifth, sixth and seventh grades that they can become an electrician or a plumber out of high school.