How Small Businesses Can Grow Their Workforce

In this episode, we talk to the President and CEO of Charlotte Works about how small businesses can grow their workforce.

Andrew: All right. Good afternoon.

We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again. Business consultant Jim Collins once said that, “Great vision without great people is absolutely irrelevant.”

I’m Andrew Bowen, your host of CBR’s B2U Podcast, bringing business resources directly to you. In today’s episode, we’re talking about what small businesses need to know about developing their workforce. And without further adieu, we are honored to welcome today’s guest, the President and CEO of Charlotte Works, Patrick Graham. Patrick, welcome to the show.
Patrick: Thank you.
Andrew: To start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to be President and CEO of Charlotte Works?
Patrick: Oh, sure. It’s an interesting story. Well, I actually began my career in the social sector about 25 years ago. At the age of 25, I got involved with a group to help save a community center called, “The Martin Luther King Center of New York,” which was actually dedicated by Martin Luther King himself in ’67, about a year before he passed. But it’s also the community center I grew up in. And so as I became part of this group to sort of help revitalize it, I was asked to serve as its Executive Director, and so I did.

I worked my first four months for free, gathered a new board, got some funding going, and sort of baptism by fire at the age of 26. And from there, after I left New York, I actually came here, and my first job in Charlotte in 2001 was at Crisis Assistance Ministry. So I oversaw its emergency financial assistance, as well as helped merge emergency assistance of the county into that agency.
Andrew: That’s great.
Patrick: And then some years later, I became President and CEO of the Urban League of Central Carolina, nine years. Did a lot in workforce development, broadband, fiber optics, other workforce initiatives, and became part of the Board of Directors here for Charlotte Works at that time, and as they were recruiting people for this new role, I originally thought I was going to be one of those helping find someone, and one day I got a call that said, “We’d like to interview you for the role.” And so here I am.
Andrew: Well that’s fantastic, and like I say to many New Yorkers that are now in Charlotte: Welcome.
Patrick: Thank you.
Andrew: Yep.
Patrick: I did undergrad here at Johnson C. Smith, by the way, in ’88 and ’92. So this is like my second time around.
Andrew: Okay, that sounds great then. Well, welcome back then. And so for those of you who don’t know, or for those of our listeners who don’t know, can you explain a little bit about Charlotte Works and what it does?
Patrick: So Charlotte Works is a not-for-profit that serves as the workforce board for the City of Charlotte and for Mecklenburg County. And so our primary responsibility is to convene workforce agencies, as well as economic development entities, and education around developing career pathways. And the way that we do that is literally through policy recommendations and creating partnerships, as well as creating certified career pathway models that are adopted by the state and the local region. That’s a lot.
Andrew: That is a lot. So what we’ll do for our listeners is go through a couple of different things. So, to start, can you identify a couple things that small business owners need to know about employees and talent acquisition, and how Charlotte Works helps facilitate that or make that easier?
Patrick: Yeah. I think that one of the things that employers need to recognize is they need to be engaged actually in the development of the talent pipeline early on. So I really think that employers–particularly in some of those top 5 to 10 industries, where we’re actually lacking a lot of talent–need to get engaged early on in the K-12 system. We need more of them at the table in curriculum development and actually in developing certified pathways, so that they actually have a pipeline of employees that are coming up very early on.

The other thing is that, as they’re looking and recruiting, you’ll see that we’re in a technological age where you can’t just go in the paper and advertise anymore. You have to use various sort of technological platforms. Everyone knows of LinkedIn and others. NCWorks is one of those systems that we use with the state, of which you can get talent from. But I think the most important thing is their engagement in the development of that talent pipeline has to occur much earlier on because today I probably hear more often than I used to how we don’t have a skilled workforce to actually come in to some of the new jobs that are now available. 
Andrew: Yeah. So can you explain a little bit what you mean by talent pipeline? It sounds pretty self-explanatory, but from your perspective, can you kind of…Where does that pipeline start, and where does it end?
Patrick: Well, talent pipelines actually begin in your K-12 system. I mean, as early as a child coming out of kindergarten, making sure that they’ve had the correct Pre-K experience, but also making sure children are reading and doing on level with math at 3rd grade, ensuring that courses that are needed for you to get to certain industries are available in that system, and partnering very closely with our community college system and higher education system with that I think is really important. So when you think about talent pipeline, it develops a lot earlier, and a lot of time we don’t think about that until we need the help, right? Until we need employees.
Andrew: Yeah, but that’s one of those things, when you realize you need employees, or what? If I’m doing my math right…What,15 years behind already?
Patrick: That’s right. So you really have to get engaged early on in that pipeline. That’s what we mean by pipeline. You’re right. It sounds self-explanatory. In many ways it is, but how you actually do that is very interesting, and it’s really tedious, so I’ll give you an example.

When we developed, just recently, a talent pipeline career pathway for advanced manufacturing, we had to convene economic development entities, advanced manufacturing organizations, both local and foreign. We had to have K-12 at the table. We had to have education institutions, the state’s superintendent, some of his staff, others, to actually walk through a process where we literally, from kindergarten all the way to the job itself, map out what skills a person would need in order to get there. That’s how detailed those are. And then we give those to educators and others to use as they’re counseling young people on the careers that are available. And so, part of that is that we let industry lead it first. So when we invite them to the table, we’re saying, “You’re the end game. Tell us what skill sets are going to be needed now and 20 years from now in your field, and let’s look at how we can map that out.”
Andrew: That’s great. So, kind of predicting the future and then working backwards. 
Patrick: Working backwards, and then trying to push people forward.
Andrew: So does Charlotte Works facilitate a lot of that? If some…like if a business owner said, “I’m missing something…,” you know, “I’m missing the ability to find people that have a specific skill set,” can they come to Charlotte Works and say, “Can you help me by either identifying some pathway that’s already been identified that I can pull from, or help me develop a new one?” Like what does that…does that…is that a process that exists?
Patrick: So that…Yes, there is. So we have our business services division, and we operate to the career centers that are here in this county. Those career centers are traditionally–for lack of a better term, as most people identify it with a bad word now–your unemployment office, right? Well, these NCWorks centers are actually designed to help individuals find employment and match employers with talent. So that’s one way that we do it is actually through our career centers themselves. So we have a pipeline of people. There are about 34,000 people a year that go through Mecklenburg County’s NCWorks system. So that’s something that we actually manage, and it’s a lot of people. It’s about a third of the population. The other way is that we actually link them with other industry partners in helping develop talent, because we’re finding more and more that just have some cross sharing that goes along now, even between those we deem as ‘in competition’.
Andrew: Right. We’re in…we’re all in this together kind of stuff.
Patrick: We’re all in this together. We’re all struggling together. We all need this, and so if you have some that can help develop pipelines better than others, then they’re going to depend on that. And I think that the hardest thing for us to really get hold of is that we talk a lot about big business when we’re talking about pipeline development, but we’re forgetting what I call the 95-percenters: small business. They’re the majority of employers, but they also have the most difficult time in developing pipelines, even within their organizations, and that’s something that we also help with. We’re actually doing a project now with Carolinas HealthCare System, Novant is coming on, and CaroMont to develop career pathway models even into their organizations. For as large as they are, they even need sometimes that type of assistance.
Andrew: Wow. You mentioned Carolinas HealthCare System and Novant as needing assistance, too. So what, specifically, are the struggles that small businesses are having finding their talent? Is it a lack of…I mean, it’s probably not necessarily a lack of specific talent, but maybe finding those folks. So you mentioned NCWorks but then, you know, there’s the LinkedIn, the, the…like all these different places. Is it one of those things which is just so overwhelming for many small business owners who are focused on running their business first and then, you know, in those extra spare five minutes they have a day, trying to figure out how they can find somebody to help.
Patrick: Sure. I think the biggest thing for small business is capacity, first of all. I mean, when you’re operating…

And when I say small business, you know, I’m thinking about those businesses sometimes they have a hundred employees or less. You know, there are other definitions of small business that go to 1,000 plus so, but we’re really talking about those businesses that you and I would consider small business. So capacity is one, so they really need sort of a funnel, a one-stop shop for that type of information. And so that’s one of the things that we try to work with them on because they don’t have the capacity. They’re running daily businesses; they’ve got staff that’s already stretched, right? And yet they also desire to compete, and so capacity is one.
And actually funding is another. When you’re trying to get talent, and you’re competing in a very…at this point, a very competitive market due to lower unemployment rates, right? So one of the things that we’ve tried to help a lot of small businesses with, and particularly even help ourselves with, selfishly, is we have a lot of wasted talent here. We have a lot of people that could be re-certified who have been dislocated, who are under-employed. You know, we talk a lot about our unemployment rate, but our under-employment rate is 11.3%, so that’s actually in double digits, so there are a lot of people who could be retrained, retooled, to meet some of the needs of these small businesses. And so it’s a matter of finding out from those small businesses exactly what they need, and then us looking at our training providers.
And we actually fund a lot of that training for individuals to get through and then place them in that pipeline. We also do incumbent worker training, so while you’re an actual employee in a lot of these small businesses, which is another challenge for them, how do you help your pipeline from within your organization? We actually provide some resources to provide additional training so that individuals can advance in an organization. So it you have someone who’s part-time, underemployed, but just needs some additional credentials that will allow them to progress in the organization, we work with employers to do that.
Andrew: That’s great. So the talent pipeline is not just a systems-level issue; it’s also an organizational level issue.
Patrick: It’s an organizational level. It’s internal. So some of the things that we’re working with some of the healthcare industry on is precisely that. So it’s not just how you get people in the door, but what are you doing with them while they’re in? And how do you sort of advance that human capital, so that it pays dividends for the individual and for the organization?
Andrew: Yeah, because they’re most valuable asset. Absolutely.
Patrick: People, all the time.
Andrew: Yep. So since we’ve gotten to the point of talking about talent retention and, you know, more organization level talent pipeline, is there anything that businesses might not realize they’re doing that’s just running employees away or scaring them off? Or saying, “Yes, you’re hired,” and then someone going, “Oh gosh, what did I get myself into? I needed to find another job.”
Patrick: Well, one is being very open with applicants about what’s really required. I think that’s always a good way to level set. You know, I remember coming into some of my sort of career choices and you start peeling back the onion and discover all kind of things that weren’t sort of said to you when you walked in.
Andrew: That famous line at the bottom, right? Other duties as assigned, which is usually 60% of the job, right?
Patrick: So there’s those. So you really want to be upfront with people about what you feel…what it really takes. Flexibility, too, especially with millennials. A lot of them are more about getting the job done, not necessarily the time that it’s done, and so having that type of flexibility. Also, really paying close attention to those who are aging out. They’re going to have specific needs, but you’re also going to need to replace many of those individuals, and we see this a lot as our two largest bodies of generation of people are, you know, our millennials and our baby-boomers. And, you know, unfortunately people forget about X-ers, like me.
Andrew: Yep. Oh no, so I’ve had this conversation before, it’s not so much that we’ve forgotten about you; we just completely overlook you.
Patrick: Yes, I think that’s about right. So those type of things; I think that they definitely need to pay attention and be more intentional about it. I think there are a lot of leadership development training and other resources that are out there also for a lot of these smaller organization through the Department of Labor, through Department of Commerce, and others that really can provide some great resources for small business. Because at the end of the day, because they hire the most individuals, we want small businesses to succeed. You know, our most difficult challenge, even as a workforce entity, is who do we link to so many of those small businesses that do the majority of hiring? It’s easier to find the bigger fish, but much more difficult to find all of those little ones that really make the workforce ecosystem.
Andrew: Yep, and the economy churn, but they expand every single industry imaginable, and they’re, you know, 1 here, 10 there, 15 there, but not the huge healthcare systems for example, right? So it sounds like when you’re talking about employers doing the hiring and being clear with employees, there’s, you know, that feedback cycle too, you know, and also learning from mistakes, and then learning from your employees once you get them on, you know, to say, How can I retain you? How can I develop you?

Do you guys help facilitate things that kind of work on an internal basis of…or an internal…to a company about how they can help retain talent by listening to them, specifically?
Patrick: So, yes we do. So we partner a lot with the community college system, marry very closely, and there are actual workshops, courses, that we actually provide in collaboration with them for small businesses and others when it comes to retention. And one of the things that I’m most proud of is that we have…we convene about 14 workforce partners, mainly in government and the social sector. So they’re agencies like an Urban League, a Goodwill, Charlotte Area Fund Vocational Rehab, Mecklenburg County’s DSS, and we co-developed a soft skill retention curriculum called, “Work Smart,” and this curriculum actually has been adopted by the North Carolina community college system, and we just presented it to the North Carolina Works Commission to look at its possible adoption just state-wide. Currently, that particular soft skills and retention curriculum…we have over 40 sites that have been trained and certified; you have to be certified to do it. And that’s one of the ways that we’re also helping employers, by actually having their individual employees trained through this, so they understand how to deal with many of the diverse issues they’re going to face in the workplace. How they’re going to stay level-headed and strategic as well as, you know…how do you deal with conflict and other things in the workplace? And I think that’s important because what we found a lot from employers of all sizes is some of the soft skills that are needed. You know, you have even young people coming out of college; this is not something that they’re taught in college. I mean, it’s not part of the curriculum, right? So when they come in, they don’t like something, they think they can treat it as they did maybe in their dormitory. Well, it’s not the same thing, and you find that at all levels of employees.
Andrew: Yeah. So if there’s an employer who’s interested in the WorkSmart certification, is that right? How would one go about that?
Patrick: You can just simply contact Charlotte Works. You go right to our website,
Andrew: Great. And is there like a class size maximum, or is this a ongoing thing that anybody, at any time can go ahead and take advantage of?
Patrick: It’s ongoing but we do try to develop cohorts. So instead of sealing…It’s not like we’re going to train one person at a time. So there are generally classes of around eight or so individuals that get certified. The other thing is, is that we also provide…we have providers that actually train the employees themselves through the curriculum, which I think is important.
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. So if you had one piece of advice for…okay, first a job-seeker, and then for a job-seeker-finder–someone who’s looking for the right talent, someone who’s got talent that is looking for a job–what are the one pieces of advice that you would give to each of them?
Patrick: I think where they both come together is this…I think for the job-seeker it is first really understanding what your skill set is, that you can tangibly prove, and show, and demonstrate. And also have a sense of where you want to go, because to be able to have those skills, but then you have to communicate that to employers, I think is important. For the employer, I would say it’s more about recognizing not just the talent you need for now, but when you look at hiring someone, what is the potential for them to grow within the organization? It sounds cliché, but a lot of times we’re just trying to patchwork it; we’re trying to just meet a need, and we’re not really thinking long-term.

So when I’m looking at hiring someone, for example, in my role, I’m really looking at, “Well, what else can I do with this individual beyond what’s in this job’s description today?” You know, what other assets are there? And that’s what people are looking for more and more because, as we become more automated, people are being required to do more things or have some expertise in areas that normally wouldn’t always go together or fit. 
Andrew: A lot of dabbling in different things, not very focused work as much anymore, right?
Patrick: Well in some respects, that’s true. I think in some areas you see that more than others. You know, advanced manufacturing–there are certain skill sets that are needed, they’re very specific, but, you know, in somewhere like in healthcare, you know, if you’re a nurse, you’re not just a nurse, but you also have to have some understanding of basic social work and customer service, that’s very important to the job. So, you know…I think, too, what we do as an organization, but also with our partners, is right now we are developing a centralized job development unit, and that unit basically takes 14 partner agencies that all do employment training, employment placement, and we’re placing the job development functions in one place, with one database. And so what that will allow us to do is better serve employers because they’ll have one funnel for a lot of these organizations, and also creates a quality control of applicants coming through. So I’m excited about that. I think that between the question you asked about both ends, the employer and the job-seeker…
Andrew: It’s just a double-sided funnel.
Patrick: We’re trying to create a double-sided funnel that sort of gives them a portal, both sides, to meet each other.
Andrew: Right. So how far are you away from a fully operational double-sided funnel?
Patrick: We’re looking at…it looks like we’re on track to be done in probably about August for a launch.
Andrew: Oh, great.
Patrick: But now of course that first year will be definitely experimental. I mean, you’re talking about a new system, you’re talking about grabbing 14 organizations. I mean, think about if you had 14 different banks trying to do that, all right? So this is what’s happening now in the workforce sectors, particularly in those non-for-profits, you literally have government and non-for-profits in particular coming into one funnel, one place, to try to create something that’s bigger than themselves.
Andrew: Yeah. That sounds like a great vision that’s going to really benefit a lot of folks and a lot of businesses once it’s all set up.
Patrick: I think it will, and I just ask people to just keep focused, keep trying it. I can’t predict all of the little potholes that will come about, but I will tell you I think it will be more than worth it.
Andrew: Well, it sounds like, too, the more people and businesses that are involved, the fewer potholes there’ll be because, you know, make your voice heard, right?
Patrick: That’s right.
Andrew: Awesome. We’re coming to the end of our podcast. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close this up?
Patrick: Well, other than this, I just believe that in this day and age, as we think about issues of economic mobility and talent pipelines, that as a community, we will have to view people more as valued human capital. It has to be something that’s engrained in everything we do. At the end of the day, what attracts businesses to a community is not incentives. It’s really about the environment and the actual employees or the talent that they have, and that is what attracts people to a community, and that’s what attracts good job seekers to a community. So if we keep thinking of people as valuable, we keep thinking of our community as a place that we need to make oriented to families and to young people for growth, I think that we’ll do great.
Andrew: Great. Well, thank you again, Patrick, for being here. We’re going to go ahead and close this very informative podcast up, so thank you. Again, my name is Andrew Bowen and this has been another episode of CBR’s B2U Podcast. Until next time, as always, we mean business.

And for future podcasts, visit us online at and follow us on Twitter @CBRbiz. To learn more about Patrick Graham and Charlotte Works and all the great work that they’re doing, be sure to visit


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