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Professor: Wilson should tackle demographic challenges head-on

Posted on May 20, 2022

Updated on May 22, 2022

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Wilson Forward Assistant Director Cameron Cochran, right, and Wilson Human Relations Director Dante Pittman discussed 2020-21 Wilson Leadership Institute research on attracting and retaining young professionals during Wilson Forward’s annual meeting on Thursday.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Wilson Forward Assistant Director Cameron Cochran, right, and Wilson Human Relations Director Dante Pittman discussed 2020-21 Wilson Leadership Institute research on attracting and retaining young professionals during Wilson Forward’s annual meeting on Thursday.

University of North Carolina professor James Johnson reviews demographic information from the 2020 census with Wilson Forward annual meeting attendees Thursday.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

University of North Carolina professor James Johnson reviews demographic information from the 2020 census with Wilson Forward annual meeting attendees Thursday.

University of North Carolina professor James Johnson reviews demographic information from the 2020 census with Wilson Forward annual meeting attendees Thursday at Barton College.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

University of North Carolina professor James Johnson reviews demographic information from the 2020 census with Wilson Forward annual meeting attendees Thursday at Barton College.

University of North Carolina professor James Johnson discusses demographic information from the 2020 census during Wilson Forward’s annual meeting on Thursday.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

University of North Carolina professor James Johnson discusses demographic information from the 2020 census during Wilson Forward’s annual meeting on Thursday.

Wilson Forward Assistant Director Cameron Cochran, right, and Wilson Human Relations Director Dante Pittman discussed 2020-21 Wilson Leadership Institute research on attracting and retaining young professionals during Wilson Forward’s annual meeting on Thursday.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Wilson Forward Assistant Director Cameron Cochran, right, and Wilson Human Relations Director Dante Pittman discussed 2020-21 Wilson Leadership Institute research on attracting and retaining young professionals during Wilson Forward’s annual meeting on Thursday.

University of North Carolina professor James Johnson reviews demographic information from the 2020 census with Wilson Forward annual meeting attendees Thursday.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

University of North Carolina professor James Johnson reviews demographic information from the 2020 census with Wilson Forward annual meeting attendees Thursday.

University of North Carolina professor James Johnson reviews demographic information from the 2020 census with Wilson Forward annual meeting attendees Thursday.
University of North Carolina professor James Johnson reviews demographic information from the 2020 census with Wilson Forward annual meeting attendees Thursday at Barton College.
University of North Carolina professor James Johnson discusses demographic information from the 2020 census during Wilson Forward’s annual meeting on Thursday.
Wilson Forward Assistant Director Cameron Cochran, right, and Wilson Human Relations Director Dante Pittman discussed 2020-21 Wilson Leadership Institute research on attracting and retaining young professionals during Wilson Forward’s annual meeting on Thursday.

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 252-265-7821

Wilson’s 2020 census figures startled many stakeholders, including local leaders who doubted the accuracy of a count tallied in the midst of a pandemic.

“Did we have problems with the census?” asked James Johnson, a University of North Carolina professor. “Yes, we did, but as a demographer that watches these trends, I wasn’t surprised by anything because you could see it coming with the two previous decades of data.”

Nearly 200 Wilson leaders and stakeholders gathered Thursday at Barton College for the first Wilson Forward annual meeting since 2019. Johnson served as keynote speaker, delivering some harsh realities exposed by recent demographic studies as well as some opportunities for Wilson to thrive.

“Unfortunately the demographic dividends are not equally distributed in the state. In fact, we had about 903,000 people added to the state of North Carolina population between 2010 and 2020, but 47% of that growth was in two counties — Wake and the great state of Mecklenburg,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Sixty-four percent of the growth was in five counties, 84% was in 10 counties and 95% of the growth was in 15 counties.”

The remaining 5% of growth was spread across 85 counties, including Wilson.

Johnson pointed out that Wilson isn’t ranked among the 65 counties in the state where deaths exceed births, but the census revealed a 3% decrease in population throughout the county.

“Your situation would have been much worse without international migration coming here,” he said. “I don’t know what your politics are on immigration, but if you take those people out, you’re in deep yogurt. Deep, deep yogurt.”

Johnson emphasized the need to focus on growth and workforce development that’s inclusive of different nationalities, genders and age groups. Bolstering child care and the local school system are key areas of improvement that help recruit residents and encourage couples to start a family.

Experts say spouses need to have 2.1 kids to replace themselves — an indicator called the total fertility rate — but across the country, only native Hawaiians and other Pacific islanders are meeting that rate. The pandemic exacerbated this problem, with more than 2 million women leaving the workforce to take care of the children they already have.

“I’m so happy to see y’all because we’ve been on lockdown, but what usually happens in a lockdown nine months later? There is a baby boom because y’all get busy, but it did not happen during the pandemic,” Johnson said. “In other words, the pandemic started in March and nine months later, we were 40,000 births short. That is 40,000 births that were likely to have occurred but didn’t, and for 2021, it is estimated we had 300,000 fewer births than we would have had in the absence of the pandemic.”

Johnson noted that 40% of the country’s population lives in child care deserts, where the number of children far exceeds preschool and day care workers’ available seats.

“I think we need to tackle this child care crisis head-on. Women won’t be able to go back to work if we don’t,” he said. “This is all of our problem. It is not just a problem for the school systems or workplaces, but it is a competitiveness issue that affects everyone.”

Wilson Forward’s mission is to build partnerships for education, health and wellness as well as workforce development, so Johnson’s message spoke to the group’s core aims.

“We need to have our eyes open to understand where we are headed so we can kick everybody’s butt along the way,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to be blindsided and run over by predictable change. I think those of us who grew up in this region are particularly equipped with the tools to deal with these issues.”

Visit www.wilsonforward.org to learn more about Wilson Forward’s initiatives.

“The goal when we have these meetings is to create a space to talk about the challenges we have, and when we leave, we think about those challenges differently,” said Wilson Forward Executive Director Paula Benson. “I feel the message Dr. Johnson shared impacts all of us as we think about the future. I think if there ever was a community to take that information and do something with it, we are it. We are prepared to have the conversations and plan and apply it to our future.”

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