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The changing face of Ashe industry: Lost factory jobs unlikely to return, officials say

G.E. Aviation of West Jefferson is one company in Ashe that appears to have weathered the
national recession, officials and economic analysts say.

Originally published: Feb. 7, 2013
Last modified: Feb. 7, 2013

Jesse Campbell

For decades, Ashe County has relied on a strong manufacturing base as a means of livelihood for a semiskilled workforce.

What was historically a county steeped in agricultural tradition, soon saw many workers trade in their role as farmers for a factory setting that provided a steady paycheck, vacation pay and benefits.

This remained the status quo for years until a shaky economy scarred local industry.

As the effects of recession hit home, many of these longstanding industrial mainstays began to restructure or relocate, forcing hundreds out of jobs.

Signs of industrial unrest in Ashe, however, were apparent long before 2008.

According to figures compiled by the High Country Workforce Development Board, there are 960 fewer manufacturing positions in Ashe County in 2012 than there were in 2002.

That is a 43 percent change workforce, with each individual position accounting for an average annual salary of $41, 256, according to the board’s numbers.

With yet another factory — United Chemicon — announcing a reduction in workforce in October 2012, Ashe is looking at ways to circumvent a rising unemployment rate with new job opportunities, officials say.

Adrian Tait, director for the WFDB, said many of these workers affected by the recent changes in the job market are unprepared to make the necessary transition to a new career.

While there are local resources available for retraining and learning techniques to impress employers at job interviews, laid-off workers are faced with a struggling local economy that offers few viable options of starting fresh and making a new living.

Tait said many of these workers, who once had benefits, good pay and a 9-to-5 jobs, are now looking at the reality of working retail or fast food to get by.

Those holding out for the return of jobs at a large-scale manufacturing facility are probably clinging on to a pipe dream, Tait said.

“From an economic development standpoint, the big companies like United Chemicon or Gates are very hard to come by,” said Tait. “They are very fickle. They don’t hire very often and have layoffs. … The likelihood of getting companies like that to come to Ashe County (again) is becoming very unlikely.”

Part of the reason for the traditional break stems from the towns and cities Ashe is competing against for the attention of lucrative manufacturing companies, said Tait.

Larger cities can offer support systems that increase the success of large-scale manufacturing, including a mobilized transportation system that can ensure an uninterrupted flow of goods to and from facilities. Close proximity to regional or even international airports also play into a company’s decision to come to a town

or city.

“Mountain counties and rural areas are typically at the bottom of the list of these industries,” Tait said.

What’s next?

Following months of research in the wake of this new reality, Tait and the WFDB, agree there are now two best-fit scenarios for either laid-off factory workers or unemployed Ashe County residents in general.

“People who can start their own business to serve the needs of the community are the best option,” Tait said.

Appalachian State University’s entrepreneur center is currently trying to find ways to ensure the success of small businesses, Tait said.

This has included asking the community to take surveys that ask questions pertaining to where they shop for goods and services to give entrepreneurs a leg up over outside competition, Tait said.

If these small businesses can survive and enjoy success, they can in turn hire new employees.

Another option that exists requires Ashe County to return to its roots.

With the rise of the “eat local” movement, expanding farmers’ markets and new or emerging technologies, Tait said the era of the “agri-preneur” or a return of farming may be upon us.

“There is a lot of land in Ashe County,” Tait said. “A lot of farmland that is not being used.”

The primary barrier that exists to prospective farmers is the availability of land, a quintessential resource for any new “agri-preneur.”

“The problem is, how do we connect them with the 70-year-old who lives on a 100-acre farm he’s not doing anything with,” Tait said.

Programs such as “Seeds of Change” are tackling similar questions to help jumpstart the careers of new farmers.

Tait said he’s also heard of community co-ops for new farmers who allow them to share pieces of expensive farm equipment that would otherwise rust during the 10 months it’s not being used.

County’s rebooted construction industry

Another segment of Ashe County’s workforce hit hard by the lagging economy is the construction industry.

Following a boon of new construction that came on the heels of a growing second-home industry, the defining smashing sound of hammers and the click and clacking of new bricks being laid have recently fell dormant.

“In the past three to four years, we’ve seen huge layoffs in the construction industry,” Tait said.

Then, the WFDB saw another disconcerting trend that could be addressed by the sudden increase of unemployed homebuilders.

In 2009, the board found that Ashe County spent $22.6 million on energy costs.

Tait said Ashe County, like other counties in the High Country, does not produce its own power because it comes from larger co-ops and energy companies.

Every cent that was being made by Ashe County workers for electricity was being siphoned off the mountain, said Tait.

“The question became how do we spend less on energy,” said Tait. “We need to start making buildings more efficient.”

Tait said that’s where skilled homebuilders, contractors, electricians, masons and plumbers come in.

By relying on their background in construction, workers can receive additional training to learn how to retrofit homes and businesses to make structures more energy efficient, or they could work for other enterprises geared toward the going green movement.

Unemployed contractors will soon be available to find retrofit training through Wilkes Community College and Building Performance Engineering of Boone, Tait said.

Training fees for those eligible individuals in the building trades are paid by the WFDB through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

More information on this program is available at buildingperformanceengineering.com or by calling (828) 265-4888.

Changing perceptions

Another obstacle challenging the county’s workforce, particularly the newest generation of workers, is the attitude or perception that has long plagued manufacturing and trade professions.

Tait said many high school and college graduates shy away from factory jobs or traditional blue-collar jobs, such as electrical work or plumbing, because of the stigma that comes with it.

“Blue-collar jobs are hurting for new employees,” Tait said. “There is a huge wave of employees in the trade industries that are getting ready to retire. There is no pipeline ready to fill those jobs.”

Again, Tait referenced WCC as a ready resource to retrain workers willing to enter into a trade profession.

Even if manufacturing jobs return to Ashe County, those industries will be faced with a battle of the changing the attitudes of a younger generation of workers.

“They tend to think of the old factory setting with the bad working conditions,” Tait said. “They don’t think of facilities like G.E. Aviation in West Jefferson that is renowned in the aviation division for how well it is run or how good of a job they do.”

“They are stellar performers, not just because of their style of lean manufacturing, but also because of their team-based approach,” he said. “That’s what makes them different.”

For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.