Whittier has been home to Elda Chafoya DePaz and her three children for less than a year, but it’s not their first summer in Western North Carolina.
In November, it will have been 12 years since DePaz, 36, left her native Guatamala to seek a better life in the United States. Life was hard in Guatamala, she said, with poverty everywhere you looked. She worked for a banana company there, tasked with separating 17 bunches per minute from the giant clumps of fruit that come from a banana tree. The work was done manually, with just a knife.
Spring can be a scramble at the High Hampton Inn and Country Club in Cashiers. Every year, after a long and quiet winter, the business prepares to reopen its kitchens, its golf greens, its rooms and welcome back the guests as trees leaf out and the cool mountain summer begins.
To meet the challenge, High Hampton’s human resources manager Sydneye Trudics embarks on a rampage of hiring, in a matter of months nearly quadrupling the club’s staff from a cold-weather crew of 50 to a summer peak somewhere north of 180. It’s not an easy task.
With a bigger local labor pool and a tourism season that wraps around most of the year, hiring in Sylva is an easier proposition than it is for Cashiers businesses — at least, that’s how City Lights Café owner Bernadette Peters sees it.
Although Haywood County shares many economic similarities with Cashiers, it also sees challenges distinct from those of Jackson County.
Canton’s new budget includes a provision making it the first living wage certified government in Western North Carolina, but at the town board meeting June 23, aldermen took that measure one step further.
Two million dollars in grant money is coming to Haywood Community College for laid-off workers to find a new place in the workforce.
The money is part of a grant from the Department of Labor that’s been handed out across the state. HCC got the funding by going in with nine other community colleges to try for money from the advanced workforce training pot.
“As one of 10 community colleges in the NC Advanced Manufacturing Alliance, HCC will participate in the creation of a new learning model to place the unemployed, dislocated workers and others in viable advanced manufacturing jobs,” said HCC President Rose Johnson in a statement.
The funding is geared towards training in advanced manufacturing, giving the unemployed an avenue into the more skilled sectors of manufacturing.
Schools in the alliance will share a total of $18.8 million over a three-year period.
Local and regional manufacturing outfits such as Sonoco Products, Consolidated Metco and West CATV Supplies are also a part of the project, along with Workforce Development Boards and JobLink centers across the state.
In total, the money will help unemployed workers in 17 counties, including Haywood and Buncombe, where A-B Tech also got a cut of the grant, though its share was much smaller at $357,645.
Across the country, only 32 community colleges were awarded funds from the $500 million grant allocation, though 200 applied.
A large component of the programs funded by the grant will obviously be designed to retrain low-skill workers, but the colleges will also be working with the industries these students are likely to end up in, assessing their needs and tailoring the programs to meet them. Online learning will also be given a boost by the money.
Elsewhere in the state, Robeson, Beaufort County, Craven, Fayetteville, Nash, Edgecombe, Davidson County and Surry community colleges are a part of the alliance that won the funds.
Officials at HCC said it was a bit too early to announce with certainty exactly what the influx of cash will fund; the awards were only handed out last week.
But a committee was scheduled to meet over the weekend to discuss just where the money should go.
There are, however, restrictions on what can be done with it. The federal grant can only be used to retrain workers and improve their skills, not for other college projects like building repairs.
While it doesn’t seem like much of a news flash, it has emerged as one of the top concerns in Macon County economic development circles: the workforce is aging.
“It actually is something to be concerned about. It is getting worse,” James McCoy, an economic development consultant for Macon County, told a gathering of local elected leaders last week. “We have a need for a younger, more professional workforce.”
Leaders from Franklin, Highlands, and Macon County held a joint meeting last Thursday (July 23) to hear a progress report on a new economic development strategy for the county. Over the past several months, McCoy and other economic development officials have been systematically meeting with the county’s largest employers to help chart a new path for economic development.
A recurring theme among those interviewed is concern over the aging workforce, McCoy said.
While the number of people over 65 is growing in the county, the number under the age of 44, and particularly under the age of 29, is shrinking.
“The big thing we heard was the age of our community and the age of our workforce,” said Ed Shatley, chairman of the Macon Economic Development Commission. “If we don’t correct this we will become a community of retirees who require many more services than a younger workforce.”
While most of the officials gathered for last week’s meeting at the Mill Creek Country Club were themselves retirees over 60, a new sports bar in downtown Franklin called Mulligan’s was hopping with a young crowd listening to a live band and generally enjoying life in Macon County.
Camped out at a table in the middle of the bar were four young men — a teacher, a banker, a plumber, and an electrical contractor — enjoying a guy’s night out. All of them were 33 years old but had moved to Franklin in their early 20s.
“We grew up in a big city in a not so nice area,” said Ryan Haley, the teacher in the bunch. “Franklin is a nice place to live and raise a family and hang out and not worry about whether your neighbor is a drug dealer.”
Today, they are all married with kids. That wasn’t the case when they moved here as single guys after college, but they all had a life goal of eventually marrying and sought out a good place to start a family.
“We didn’t want to raise our kids in the city,” said Seth Greenley, the electrical contractor.
The four generally enjoy the outdoors, another thing Macon County has going for it. Of course, there are things they miss.
“The movies and restaurants,” said Greenley.
In a perfect world, Greenley envisions sitting at an outdoor café with his wife while people stroll up and down the sidewalks of town.
“Now, it seems the whole county shuts down at 6 p.m.,” Greenley said.
That’s one area of focus McCoy had mentioned as well.
“A vibrant downtown is one of the most important things to attracting young people,” McCoy said. “Downtowns are immeasurably important to quality of life. Communities where downtowns have done really well have consistently seen young people want to stick around.”
Another top amenity in attracting a younger workforce has thankfully been checked off the list recently: approving the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks in bars and restaurants in Franklin.
Until the vote passed just three years ago, simply buying a beer during a night on the town was not possible.
“That was an important move,” said Jim Bo Ledford, the owner of a plumbing business. “You had to go buy a six-pack of beer and sit around at home. It’s fun to get out and socialize.”
All four guys lament that county voters didn’t approve a $9.4 million recreation bond two years ago. If the county wants more young people to move here, that would have helped. It called for ballfields, an indoor pool, and myriad recreation facilities that younger people, especially those with kids, would find appealing. Yet Macon County’s aging voters didn’t approve the bond.
While salaries in Macon County are lower than the state average — something that troubles the economic development experts — Josh Brant, a banker at Wachovia, said it wasn’t a deal breaker.
“With our generation, it’s not how much money you make. It’s quality of life,” said Brant. “You can have a good quality of life here. The thing lacking is jobs.”
While economic development leaders wrangle with ways to attract a younger workforce, Brant and his friends contend that you need to create jobs first and the workforce will follow. Their generation is more mobile, willing to move where there’s a job in their field if it’s a decent place to live.
A plight often lamented in economic development circles is the out-migration of mountain kids for college who never return home because there aren’t good jobs. When asked which should be recruited first — young workers or jobs for those workers — Shatley responded: “Which is first, the chicken or the egg?”