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Working his way up

Jon Hardister is currently in his sixth term in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Facebook photo Jon Hardister is currently in his sixth term in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Facebook photo

Hardister seeks important labor post 


The 2024 Primary Election is only seven months away and with a spate of seats up for grabs, candidates are already putting in the work to be in position for statewide office come March 5. One of them, a young six-term Republican House representative from Guilford County named Jon Hardister, hopes to apply his skills to one of North Carolina’s most pressing concerns. 

Hardister grew up in Greensboro, son of a banker dad who started a mortgage company and a residential builder mom who’s now retired.

In high school, he was fascinated with American history, became a news junkie and began doing some outside reading on contemporary politics. Attracted to the Republican Party’s ideals of upward mobility and free markets, he cast his first vote in the pivotal 2000 Presidential Election.

After graduating from tiny Greensboro College with as a political science major, Hardister went right to work for the mortgage company, did some real estate investing and then decided he wanted to take his experience, his education and his enthusiasm to the North Carolina General Assembly by running for a seat in 2010.

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He got smoked by 11 points, losing to perennial Democratic powerhouse Pricey Harrison in a heavily Democratic district.

“I enjoyed the process of being a candidate and meeting people and learning about their concerns and ideas,” Hardister said. “They say either you hate being a candidate or you love it, and in my case, I really enjoyed it. Fast-forward to 2012, the districts changed, I ran again and I was able to win.”

Hardister’s first few terms were in a solidly Republican district, but that advantage has dwindled over the past decade. His most recent win came in a district that he estimates is now a D+2.

“I chalked that up to just hard work, having a great team and then being effective at communicating with everybody and treating people with respect,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve always tried to do is respond to all the calls and emails that come in our office and listen to people, treat them with respect and try to conduct myself and conduct our office in a professional manner.”

Now in his sixth term representing Guilford County, Hardister couldn’t get much higher in House leadership; he serves as majority whip, vice chair for appropriations and chair of the education appropriations committee.

On Jan. 4, Hardister announced that rather than seek a seventh term, he’d run for Labor commissioner after Republican incumbent Josh Dobson — a former four-term McDowell County representative —announced halfway through his first term that he wouldn’t seek reelection. He cited a desire to prioritize family time and private sector work, according to the Carolina Journal

“That caught everybody off guard, including myself, and that’s when I started thinking that we need someone in that office who understands business, who understands the private sector, who understands government,” Hardister said. “At the risk of sounding immodest, I thought, ‘Well, that’s me.’”

Dobson apparently agrees; last month, he endorsed Hardister , saying Hardister “has the experience and skills necessary to continue the success I’ve been a part of since taking office in 2021.”

But as with most council of state offices in North Carolina, most voters really don’t have any idea what North Carolina’s Labor Commissioner actually does. In fact, most probably think the commissioner’s sole duty is putting their picture into elevators across the state — a clever move  popularized by Dobson’s Republican predecessor, longtime commissioner Cherie Berry.

“She reached legendary status in large part because of that,” Hardister laughed. “But the department covers a lot more ground than simply having a picture in an elevator.” 

The North Carolina Department of Labor is statutorily responsible  for ensuring the “health, safety and well-being” of the state’s workers and does so by managing more than 300 employees within its constituent bureaus, including a boiler safety bureau, a wage and hour bureau, an employment discrimination bureau and yes, an elevator and amusement bureau among others.

Although many of those bureaus are meant to address problems or safety issues within the state’s workforce, two other bureaus are growing in importance as major investments from large corporations continue to pour into the Old North State.

Those investments will likely continue especially as North Carolina was named by CNBC as the top state for business  in the country, for the second year in a row.

The apprenticeship and training bureau promotes efforts to meet the demand for high-skill workers, while the education, training and technical assistance bureau provides training to employers and employees in high-risk occupations.

“The Labor Department plays a role in workforce development, because the commissioner serves on the board of the community college system, which is something that I’m very passionate about,” he said.

Hardister sees a larger role for the community college system in bolstering that development, especially with more and more advanced manufacturing operations coming to the state.

That’s the motivation behind one of his main campaign pledges — to establish what he calls the “first-ever Workforce Enhance- ment Task Force” within the department.

Made up of appointees from community colleges, the private sector, public schools, think tanks, trade associations and universities, the task force’s main objective will be to come up with ideas on how the General Assembly can ensure North Carolina has the workforce it needs to remain the best state in which to do business for many more years to come.

He sees the task force as being divided into three regions — mountain, central and coastal — to address the specific workforce needs in each area.

Hardister isn’t the only 2024 candidate talking about workforce, signaling a growing recognition in the state’s halls of power of its importance; Republican contender for lieutenant governor Hal Weatherman told The Smoky Mountain News  back in March he’s also focused on the issue.

Critical to the department’s role in ensuring the “well-being” of the state’s workforce is trying to find solutions to the state’s affordable housing crisis; major corporations will have a hard time finding workers if those workers — even those who are employed in high-skill, high wage jobs — can’t afford to live in safe, clean conditions near their place of employment.  

“I can use the Triad as an example of this. We have a lot of companies coming in to Guilford County, and we’re very fortunate. We have companies that are expanding like HondaJet, Toyota is opening up a major battery manufacturing facility, there’s other companies coming in and bringing thousands of jobs. We have the workforce, we have schools like UNC-G, A&T, Guilford Technical Community College,” he said, “but we don’t have enough housing. The supply is just not there.”

With his family background in the mortgage and construction industries, Hardister has some ideas. They involve money — and time. Generally, the longer a project takes, the more expensive it will be, and permits, inspections and impact fees all add up and end up being passed on to the buyer.

He thinks that streamlining the process, from start to finish, could help unclog the supply pipeline.

“I don’t know if there’s a perfect solution to it, but here’s what I do know — we have to figure out how to build more houses,” Hardister said. “It has to be both multifamily and single-family, rental properties, properties that are available for purchase, you just have to have more of that on the market. That has to be our objective.”

Recently, Hardister visited the town of Canton, where a perfect storm of workforce and housing problems are conspiring to create major headaches for town leaders long into the future.

During a July 13 governing board meeting, Hardister had the chance to learn more about the recent closing of Pactiv Evergreen’s Canton paper mill and hear directly from elected officials.

“Without feedback, you can’t solve problems like this. We’re dealing with a situation where you’ve got paper mill facilities in a floodplain, you’ve got displaced workers, you have the topography that makes housing challenging,” he said. “The Workforce Enhancement Task Force, I think, is the best service the Department of Labor could provide.” 

Although the 2024 elections are still a ways off, they promise to be entertaining with North Carolinians voting for a president, a governor, every member of the General Assembly and the entire council of state. 

Council of state races — including the secretary of state and departments of the state auditor, treasurer, public instruction, attorney general, agriculture and insurance — don’t often get the notice that high-profile races do, but they’re critically important to how the state functions.

Dobson won his 2020 race with one of the lowest vote totals in more than 15 years, largely on the coattails of President Donald Trump’s slim 1.34% victory over challenger Joe Biden.

Hardister’s fate — along with everyone else who runs for a council of state office — will depend greatly on how the presidential and gubernatorial races shape up, but that doesn’t mean he’s powerless to boost his chances.

“I’m prepared to serve. I have a strong work ethic, and I’m a good listener. That’s what I bring to the table. I’m prepared in the sense that I have the private sector background and also the experience working in state government,” he said.  “You have to be smart enough to know that you don’t know everything. You have to have good judgment. You have to listen and learn. I’ve done that as a legislator, and I’ll do that as labor commissioner.”

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