Future jobs may be lurking right before our eyes

Published 8:49 am Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Data from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development show that the unemployment rate increased in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties in June.
June is typically the month when education service jobs are down. These are custodians, bus drivers and other school support staff who are not working during the summer months. June is also typically the month when recent high school and college graduates enter the workforce and have yet to find employment, adding to the jobless count across the state.
Data put the June unemployment rate for Carter County at 5 percent which is down from 6.2 percent for the same period last year. The labor force for Carter County was projected at 23,680 with 22,150 gainfully employed.
These figures look good on paper, but a look at the median household income in the county is only $33,213, with the per capita income at $19,166, which puts almost one-fourth of the county’s population living in poverty.
High-paying jobs are one of Carter County’s greatest needs. Carter County has the largest proportion of people who must commute to jobs out-of-town.
The county and city need a better grasp of what employers want in a modern workforce and to invest in those areas. It also needs to better target specific job sectors that are expected to grow in the coming decades. For some time now we have trended away from an economy revolving around farming and manufacturing toward a greater reliance on high-level services.
We heard a lot during the last presidential campaign about the needs of better-paying jobs. Many of the small towns and rural communities like Elizabethton and Carter County that predominantly voted for President Trump have been struggling through years of lost jobs and various challenges related to the economy. Trump has promised to “bring jobs back” to these struggling communities, but the economic reality is that the jobs of the past are unlikely to come back. They’ve been permanently replaced or made obsolete by automation, globalized outsourcing, and other powerful economic trends that are bigger than any president’s power to change.
“Bringing the old jobs back” to rural America was a silly topic of conversation in this past election; even if we ended NAFTA tomorrow, it’s not like those same types of jobs are going to come back.
But if we are to raise the median household income, we must first make sure our workforce is educated, and we must recruit the jobs of the future — not of the past. We must do more to support small business owners in our community, to help them grow and create good-paying jobs. We must first build on our existing strengths.
One of the sectors that attention has been focused on lately is that of the arts. We can work to develop new “creative spaces” where artists and creative professions can flourish. Instead of handing out tax giveaways to big businesses, we perhaps need to take a long-term approach of making our community more hospitable to creative and entrepreneurial talent, rehabilitating old buildings, and crafting public amenities for the art. We have many talented individuals living in our community, who need an outlet to display and sell their work.
We must break out of the mindset of chasing a giant manufacturing company and competing for tax breaks to lure 30 or 40 jobs, that every other small town in America is chasing.
Instead, the best way for Elizabethton to compete is on quality of life; what’s going on in our community, why do people want to move here and live here. Ten years ago this concept of “economic development based on quality of life and creative amenities” would have been laughable; today we do it out of necessity. So our overall mission at recruiting new jobs may be to help remake our community to be more unique and culturally vibrant.
Elizabethton and Carter County have significant strengths. We have great architecture and a charming downtown. We have bike trails, two state parks, a TVA lake, the Appalachian Trail goes through Carter County, and then we have two prize rivers for fishing and rafting.
Often the biggest problems for small communities such as ours presents us with our biggest opportunities. We overlook them because we are looking at the things we have lost rather than the things we have that can become our future. We must look at where we haven’t looked before — the future and what we already have.

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