County officials strategize long-term economic solutions
ROBBINSVILLE — Jeremy McCoy has sawdust in his blood.
His father was a logger, and McCoy himself has been in the timber business for seven years.
McCoy said he usually doesn’t have a hard time finding work, but when the 25-year-old father lost his job at Graham County’s only sawmill last month, he found himself on the wrong side of one of North Carolina’s most unforgiving job markets.
“It’s hard here in Graham County,” McCoy said. “You just can’t find anything. It’s a small town.”
Nestled between Cherokee and Swain along the Tennessee border, Graham County is one of North Carolina’s three westernmost counties. The county is known for its breathtaking wilderness in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and abundant trout fisheries in its streams and lakes.
But Graham County now is garnering attention for its high percentage of out-of-work residents.
In its most recent data release, the N.C. Dept. of Commerce’s Division of Employment Security reported that Graham County had an unemployment rate of 16.7 percent in April — the highest rate of any of the 17 westernmost counties in the state. That same month, Graham County — with its labor force of 3,916 individuals — had the second highest jobless rate among the state’s 100 counties.
And from December through March, Graham County had the highest unemployment rate in the state with that rate hitting 20.6 percent in February.
Unemployment rates for May for Graham County and all the other counties in North Carolina are scheduled to be released Friday.
Each monthly unemployment report since February has brought some relief to those nervously eyeing Graham County’s situation. And in spite of its challenges, county and regional officials say they’re hopeful for the future of the county’s job market.
Many factors contribute to high rates
Like many other unemployed workers in Graham County, McCoy is using the Robbinsville JobLink Center as a jumping-off point for his job search.
Pam Dickey is the manager of the N.C. Division of Workforce Solutions’ Murphy office, which serves Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties and oversees the Robbinsville JobLink Center.
Dickey attributed much of Graham County’s unemployment to issues with the construction industry, which hasn’t recovered from heavy losses sustained during the decline of the housing market starting in 2007.
Graham County’s construction industry itself employed an average of 375 workers in 2005, according to the Division of Employment Security. That year, the county’s annual average unemployment rate was just 6.9 percent for a workforce of 4,072.
But after peaking at an average of 418 employed in 2007, Graham County’s construction industry rapidly declined. By 2009, the industry was employing an average of 290 people.
Tourism – another big industry in Graham County – has suffered during the recession. The leisure and hospitality industry in Graham went from employing an average of 372 people in 2007 to 217 in 2009, according to state agency data.
As for the exceptionally high unemployment rates from December 2011 to April 2012, Dickey said seasonal employment and an increase in the labor force could have contributed to those high rates early in the year. From December to January alone, Graham County’s labor force dropped by 89 workers, with the number of employed workers decreasing by more than 100 people. Many retail stores in the area lay off workers after the holiday season, Dickey said, and this could have contributed to the 1.7 percentage-point increase in unemployment during that time.
The rise in unemployment from January to February came as there was overall growth in the labor force, which Dickey said could have been caused by the reentry of “discouraged workers” or workers who had previously given up on looking for work.
Currently, Dickey said the Murphy office is seeing about 50 clients a day – much fewer than in the fall when the office saw as many as 110 people in a day. In addition to assisting Graham County, that office also serves Clay and Cherokee counties.
“Then, of course, last year it was even worse,” Dickey added. “I remember there were days that we had 130 coming through the Murphy office, and that doesn’t even include phone calls.”
But things are looking up, she said, with improvement from last year. “Hopefully, each year it will just get better,” Dickey said.
Currently, the seasonal tourism industry is beginning to pick up. “They’re seeing a lot more folks coming into the area now,” she said. “It’s a little slower here to see an upturn in the economy, but it is turning around.”
As of June 4, Dickey said her office had 13 job orders from employers seeking to fill about 20 openings mostly for tourism jobs. But county officials aren’t seeing these seasonal positions as a permanent solution.
County looking for long-term solutions
Graham County’s seasonal boost in employment is evident in an unemployment drop that occurs around April each year.
With spring and summer comes an increase in tourism, already evidenced this season by the rumble of motorcycles along Graham County’s otherwise quiet roads. Packs of motorcylists make their way each day during the tourist season to one of the area’s biggest attractions – The Tail of the Dragon, a curvy, 11-mile stretch of U.S. 129 that begins in Graham County.
However, the employment boost brought in the spring and summer by the arrival of motorcyclists and other tourists rarely makes it to October, and Graham County Planner Greg Cable said that, although tourism is a major sector for the county, it’s not the reliable source of employment the county needs to focus on.
“Let me say it like this, I don’t know how many motorcycles are going to come through here next week,” Cable said. “But now if I had industry and jobs here, I know how much that’s going to provide.”
Currently, the county is taking a more proactive approach to marketing itself as a good location for business, Cable said. Graham County is focusing on its infrastructure as a selling point for more data-oriented business.
“Here in Graham County, we are very suited towards data-entry, call center-type industry,” he said. “We have got some of the most top-notch fiber in the ground here.”
The fiber Cable speaks of is BalsamWest FiberNET, a fiber-optic network completed in 2007 that connects Western North Carolina with major metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Charlotte.
Despite its electronic connectivity, Graham County is still without a major airport or four-lane access, which Cable said makes the county’s fiber-optic network an even more important point to market.
Cable, who has been in his position for three months, said the county’s strategic plan is to continue working with the state and federal government, as well as the other counties in the region, to improve employment opportunities.
“We have been very successful dealing with Senator (Richard) Burr’s office and Congressman (Heath) Shuler’s office, as well as Senator (Kay) Hagan’s office,” Cable said. “They have been very helpful in helping us resolve our situation.”
He added that accomplishing anything in government tends to be a long process, but he is confident in Graham’s future.
“We’re going to get it resolved,” Cable said. “We just have to go through that process, and we’re in it now.”
The prospect of a long road to recovery seems daunting with such a large percentage of unemployed workers, but Jeremy McCoy seems to share Cable’s determination.
“If you want to work bad enough,” McCoy said, “you’ll find a job.”