Building Strong and Resilient Rural Businesses, Families, and Communities

Small businesses are an important and growing sector of employers, especially in NC’s rural communities. Their success rests on their ability to recruit and retain workers. 

That’s why Lisa Finaldi from The North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) and Aaron Dawson from The Industrial Commons (TIC) in Burke County, teamed up in March at the NC Rural Center’s annual Summit to assist participants in identifying and exploring strategies to recruit and retain employees; foster high-quality productive work environments; promote talent development; and support the health and well-being of children. 

Small businesses are an important and growing sector of employers, especially in NC’s rural communities. Their success rests on their ability to recruit and retain workers. 

The Rural Summit: Driving Policy Change: All Roads Lead to Rural brought advocates together to explore strategies and actions to advance policy and systems change across a wide range of rural development issues. One of the NC Rural Center’s priorities is to drive an equitable small business ecosystem in rural North Carolina. 

Through our Family Forward NC initiative and The Industrial Commons’ Workplace Development Initiative, we hosted a workshop for rural advocates from local governments, private businesses, workforce and economic development and nonprofits.

A few highlights from the workshop: In North Carolina, small businesses with 500 or fewer employees account for 99.6 percent of all businesses and employ 1.7 million people—nearly 45 percent of the workforce. 

Given the significant worker shortage facing most employers, small businesses need to adapt to compete for employees. And employers in rural areas in our state have an added challenge, because only 41 percent of adults have a post-secondary degree or credential, compared to 51 percent in suburban counties and 66 percent in urban counties. 

In rural NC, the top employers are industries that require employees to be present, such as:

  • Manufacturing
  • Retail
  • Health Care
  • Accommodations and Food Service
  • Construction 

To compete, especially in these industries, attracting and retaining skilled and diverse talent means creating employee engagement opportunities and family friendly workplaces. Small businesses that do so can sustain a strategic advantage to develop and grow. For many small businesses, determining how to incorporate employee engagement and family-friendly workplace practices can often feel overwhelming. Small businesses need additional support. 

Workshop participants learned about employee engagement strategies, including surveys and focus groups, to improve job quality and performance, and employee committees, to identify the best talent and engage them in deeper problem-solving. Participants of the workshop worked in small groups to explore opportunities to strengthen their businesses and organizations. Some themes from the small groups discussions were: child care policies and shared child care centers, business succession/employee ownership, mentor/buddy onboarding programs, systems of transparency for businesses and family friendly work policies. 

Workshop participants discuss strategies to recruit and retain employees. Photos by Lisa Finaldi

The workshop included sharing tools and resources about research-based family friendly workplace policies and a toolkit for employers to assess current policies and identify opportunities to create and expand family friendly workplace benefits such as paid leave and child care supports.

In addition to the reference materials, a TIC employee shared how helpful it was as a parent and professional to have six weeks of paid parental leave to take time away for his family with that sense of stability and then return to work. 

Research has proven that employee engagement strategies are proven to reduce turnover, absenteeism and burnout, and increase productivity and customer ratings. Additionally, family-friendly research-based benefits are proven to recruit and retain talented employees; alleviate some of the challenges of working parents; and support the health and well-being of children. 

The following is a brief overview of the programs from Family Forward NC and The Industrial Commons: 

The Industrial Commons’ Workplace Development Initiative offers support to:

  • Create custom employee feedback surveys and lead focus groups to improve job quality and performance, 
  • Train and support supervisors in a coaching model of supervision, where supervisors learn how to best support and develop team members,
  • Help companies implement Open Book Financial Management systems that teach everyone the financials and impact the bottom line,
  • Guide employers to establish employee committees to identify the best talent and engage them in deeper problem solving,
  • Assist business owners in selling their companies to their employees.

Family Forward NC resources and tools include: 

Employers have many tools from TIC and Family Forward NC to create workplaces where employees and their families can thrive, and businesses and organizations can grow strong and be resilient. If you’re attending the NC Manufacturing Conference in April in Winston-Salem, come to our workshop to find out more.