RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Challenges in the labor market was the forefront of a Monday forum, and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who spoke, said his upcoming budget proposal will include funding for childcare and workforce programs as he urged state lawmakers not to pursue further tax cuts.

The Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University held a day-long event focused on barriers keeping people from entering the workforce as many employers struggle to hire people to fill key jobs.

“It is the time. It’s an urgent matter right now,” Sarah Hall, the institute’s director, said. “Really, we have to transform the whole system to be able to get enough workers to fill these jobs.”

The national unemployment rate dropped to 3.4 percent in January, a level not seen in more than five decades.

Hall noted the labor force participation rate in North Carolina remains below pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

She said without some significant changes, state and local governments are at risk of having further difficulties in providing vital services to taxpayers and the state may not meet its potential when it comes to business growth and recruitment.  

Monday’s forum also focused on efforts to eliminate barriers for people who want to enter the workforce but may face challenges, such as people with disabilities, people who have served time in prison and families with young children as they struggle to afford childcare. 

Additionally, Philip Cooper, who works for the Land of Sky Regional Council in Asheville, spoke about his experience in the criminal justice system and the work he does now to help others when they’re released. He vets job seekers who he then connects with employers seeking to fill vacant positions.  

“We’re in the community, holding a person’s hand when they come home. I didn’t really have that,” he said. “What I’m doing now is making sure that when a person comes home from the penitentiary, they have somebody alongside them accessing all the resources that they need.” 

Katherine Goldstein, a journalist who has written extensively about childcare issues, said North Carolina’s growing population is poised to further strain the resources that are available. 

“After COVID, we faced a massive exodus of child-care workers. Nationally, 88,000 childcare workers have left the industry,” she said. “So, as more and more people come to North Carolina, which is wonderful and bringing all kinds of expertise and economic opportunity, there already aren’t enough spots in childcare. So, those people, as they have families and bring their children are stressing our already-broken childcare infrastructure.” 

Gov. Cooper pointed to the $805 million North Carolina received in one-time federal grant funding through the American Rescue Plan, that was meant to make childcare more affordable for families and help providers hire workers. 

“You’ll see my budget when I roll it out, we’re going to try to continue that effort. We’re lobbying Congress to do the same thing, but we’re going to need to step up,” Gov. Cooper said. 

Gov. Cooper also urged state lawmakers to expand Medicaid coverage, pay for the Leandro school funding plan that includes additional PreK slots and fund workforce development programs.  

Republican legislative leaders have said addressing the labor shortage is a top concern during this year’s legislative session.

Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) also acknowledged the challenges with childcare availability and affordability, saying it would be among the issues discussed as Republicans craft their budget plan.  

Gov. Cooper urged GOP leaders not to include further tax cuts, too.

The budget the General Assembly passed in 2021 and that Cooper signed into law includes a phased approach to reducing taxes for both individuals and businesses over the next several years. 

“We don’t need any more. We have to stop it,” he said. “We will not be able to afford these investments that we have to make. We will not be able to afford to educate that adult workforce that we have promised these businesses that we would deliver to them.”