Remember the days when Northeast factories and businesses laid off their union wage workers to move to the South where salaries were lower? Those days are gone, economic development expert Mark Lautman told a Covington workforce summit Tuesday. To coax big employers into Newton County, towns will need better amenities and a talented, educated workforce.
County is poor and getting poorer
“Branding Covington as the place that pays workers less than everywhere else is not a good way to attract talented, skilled workers to come here,” said Lautman, a New Mexico economic development consultant, whose bio claims he landed 15,000 jobs and $11 billion in investments for clients. “You need those workers for your tax base. You are poor and getting poorer. You cannot count on a national economic recovery saving Covington’s future. It won’t happen.”
Employers at the summit were equally blunt. When chamber of commerce President Hunter Hall called for a 15-minute break from the tough talk, he joked with the audience, “We may need to use the buddy system to get you all back. I hope I don’t have to put anyone on a suicide watch after this.”
They laughed. And they came back.
Newton County jobs sit vacant
Most seemed to agree with Lautman’s assessment that the global economy has changed so much over the past 20-odd years, it will never fully bounce back from its 2007 near-death freefall. Solutions must be found at the city, county or state level because Washington is too politically polarized to move forward.
Newton County employers said they had vacant jobs that could not be filled because county residents lacked the right skills and education.
Michelin plant manager Terry Redmile said his company spent a substantial sum relocating workers to the Covington workplace even after contacting the community college.
“It seems a shame that we’re spending all that money we could have spent in Covington,” said Redmile, who needed electricians and skilled maintenance workers.
One manager was inundated with hard-working, eager applicants who were unskilled laborers. Unfortunately, she needed skilled laborers. And the applicants did not have the money for classes to get the necessary certification.
Many attendees believe even college educated workers can face the same fate in the new economy that prizes engineering and science majors.
“If you didn’t have good high science, math or computer science teachers in high school, forget an engineering or chemist’s job,” ProLogistix manager Deidre Dorsey said. “You can’t learn that type of work on the job. You’re lost.”
Follow the money, not bliss
Lautman suggested the county and city work with local employers to create a scouting system to spot middle school students who were talented in math, science and technology. A mentor from the company could help the student choose courses that would educate him or her or a job in the Covington firm. A company might even pay some of the student’s college costs in exchange for a promise to work a year for the company.
“We have baseball and football scouts for talented athletes,” Lautman observed. “We should set up a similar process for science, engineering and technology.”
He urged educators, employers and parents to avoid misleading young people by telling them to do what they loved and earning a living would come naturally.
“We have a great anthropology program at New Mexico’s university that turns out 100 anthropologists per year,” he said. “Know how many anthropology jobs New Mexico has each year? Two.”
Converting the unskilled into the mainstream workforce will take substantial state, local or corporate investment, he conceded. He described a successful New Mexico program that enlisted three corporate mentors for a worker trying to gain the skills needed for a job with the corporation.
He praised Covington’s 2050 plan because it can help residents focus on how to prepare the next few generations for the future.
Rules of attracting talent
Lautman told the audience Newton County has “a really bad commute problem; 75 percent of your residents commute out of the county to work.”
Those Newton County workers may be spending lunch, coffee and gas money in another county as a result.
“You need more than an industrial park and utility scale to attract creative, innovative companies whose workers will build your tax base,” Lautman said, urging Covington to “hire an economic demographer who can help you with talent attraction. Of course that can be scary. Who wants to spend $60,000 to find out you suck at something. It may be depressing. But it has to be done.”
No, it doesn’t, not in Newton County or Covington.
“We’re not hiring an economic demographer because we just don’t have that kind of money,” Hall later told The News. “But we have already targeted industries that are a good match for our existing workforce.”
Among the industries targeted are advanced manufacturing, food processing and call centers.
So much TV and movie filming is done in Newton County, some attendees suggested during a breakout session whether Covington could convince film producers to hire locals as editors, CGI and special effects artists as well as crew members, like the industry does in popular filming locale Wilmington, N.C. But Wilmington has an infrastructure of huge studio spaces and editing bays as well as a workforce with the needed technical skills.
Hall said he was working on a plan to develop a similar core workforce in Covington, but it was not ready yet for public discussion.
What amenities would make Covington appealing to a creative, well-paid workforce—and the company that employs them?
“We’re in our infancy stage as far as talent attraction is concerned,” Covington-Newton County economic development director Shannon Davis told the audience. She invited Lautman to speak at the summit after reading his book, When Boomers Bail: A Community Economics Survival Guide.
Redmile said most potential hires with children ask about the local schools first. But managers at the summit said young workers in particular wanted to know about music, concerts, the visual arts scene and cultural amenities, too.
“Where you live is twice as important to your happiness as who you marry,” Lautman quipped, as he urged local government officials to play matchmaker for Covington. Then he closed with some final goals for attendees who emotionally or financially invested in Newton County—keep baby boomers physically healthy, make sure youth have employable skills and offer the unskilled but eager to learn a helping hand into the workforce.