Help Wanted in North Carolina's most unemployed county

Laurinburg, N.C. — In 2009, lifetime Laurinburg resident Ira Edge graduated from UNC-Pembroke with a degree in chemistry. Upon graduation, Edge looked for work at local manufacturers as a chemist with long-term plans to attend pharmacy school. Campbell Soup Company rejected Edge because he was overqualified. Hand sanitizer manufacturer QualPack, LLC closed its doors. Edge’s options dwindled.

As the financial crisis hit its hardest, companies had stopped hiring, and Edge’s wife, Tanya, lost her job at a local pawn shop. The young couple’s plans changed.

The Edges opened Treasure City Pawn in early 2009. Located on the city’s increasingly barren Main Street, the pawn shop is one of the few lights in a modern ghost town, mostly because it provides quick income for the county’s more than 2,000 jobless residents. Abandoned and decaying storefronts flank Treasure City Pawn. Windows boarded up with plywood, these stores were once Laurinburg’s city center. A vacant pharmacy’s windows reveal medicine lined up on its shelves as if its owners closed shop one day and simply never returned. Storefronts are plastered with graffiti and black signs reading “CLOSED” in orange text. On a given Friday, sidewalks are bare, save for a few stragglers. Laurinburg is the capital of rural Scotland County, which has the highest unemployment rate—a staggering 17 percent—in North Carolina. In 2006, the county’s annual average unemployment rate hovered at 8.9 percent, four percentage points above the then-state average of 4.7 percent. Post-recession, Scotland County’s rate exceeds the state average by eight points.

The jobs problem is at the forefront in this presidential election; voters consistently rank jobs as their top concern. President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney seem to promote their respective plans for job creation more than any other platform component.

Ironically, the Edges’ store is located across the street from the Democrats for Scotland County office. The building’s aptly blue facade is plastered with signs toting “Obama for America.” A small crowd of predominantly elderly volunteers crowd around a projector inside, learning about voter registration. Scotland County is historically Democratic but as the unemployment rate continues to rise and fewer residents are able to find work, some are looking for a change at the top.

Abandoned by industry

According to the North Carolina Division of Employment Security, approximately 2,200 people in Scotland County’s workforce of about 13,000 are currently unemployed. This number does not include those who have stopped looking for work altogether. The county’s population hovers at 36,000, typical for a rural area in North Carolina. From 2006-2010, 29.5 percent of families in Scotland County lived below the poverty line, and the median household income from 2006-2010 was $29,368.

The textile and manufacturing industries have historically driven Scotland County’s economy and job market. In 2000, unemployment numbers began to rise staggeringly as manufacturing companies and textile mills pulled out of the county due to closures and the transfer of production overseas. Fifteen manufacturing and textile plants have closed since 2000 resulting in the loss of 2,582 jobs. Private non-farm employment opportunities in Scotland County decreased by 37.9 percent in the last decade, according to the 2010 census.

Eddie Blackman, 53, has a history that’s not uncommon among Scotland County residents. He worked in textile but was let go after his company moved overseas. Now, he depends on disability benefits to support himself and currently has to live with his sister and brother-in-law.

For residents who don’t qualify for disability, one of the only places to turn is a temporary job agency. Though “temps” are generally successful in finding short-term employment, the jobs are not always as helpful as some may hope. “There’s a lot of people hunting jobs. They’re going through temporary services, and they’re sending them all the way out to Bennettsville [in South Carolina, 28 miles away]. They have to drive out there for $7.50 an hour—that’s a long ways,” he said. “But going through temps is about the only way you can get a job. A lot of places are shutting down.”

Since these closures, Scotland County has had trouble attracting new business. Although the county has made it onto a few shortlists for big industry plants and projects, it has not seen success in getting these companies to commit, said Scotland County Director for Economic Development Greg Icard. Icard was named to his position in 2008. Since then, he says there has been an uptick in commercial interest in the county but slowed execution. Earlier this year, for instance, Scotland was one of three choices for a manufacturer’s relocation. The company ultimately chose another state where a company that produced a similar type of product had closed.

“The final variable for them was that there was a workforce that had done exactly what they needed. They could get up to speed quicker and require less of an investment for training,” Icard said. “In each individual case of companies going elsewhere... we can work to mitigate some of the issues that can be changed and tweaked but usually it is some variable you don’t have a lot of control over.”

A problematic workforce

An even greater challenge than attracting jobs to the area is finding candidates equipped to fill existing open positions.

Laurinburg Mayor Thomas Parker agrees that jobs are tough to find but notes that unemployment is two-fold, citing a wide skills gap and the prevalence of drug problems among candidates as two factors perpetuating unemployment in the area.

“Our community has been hard hit,” said Parker. “But people just don’t hire people that can’t do the work or are a risk to their business.”

Parker, who is the owner of small furniture store in Laurinburg, adds that a workforce full of former textile workers isn’t necessarily equipped for today’s jobs. “We have a high illiteracy rate,” he says. “We have one of the fastest growing community colleges. People have gone back to school because they have lost their jobs and been displaced.”

There are five current job openings within the Scotland County government. All require a high school diploma and prefer some level of higher training or an associate’s degree.

“People are willing to commute—we can provide the labor,” he adds, underscoring the effort residents are putting into the job search. “If we got jobs, our people have to be of a certain skill level and have to have a reasonable work ethic and need to be drug-free.”

Industrial thread manufacturer, Service Thread, is one company in Laurinburg that Parker notes is confronting the skills gap and wellness problems among candidates. The company has 35 openings that pay $30,000 - $40,000 annually but is finding the positions tough to fill. Jay Todd is the chief operating officer and chief financial officer for Service Thread, which hired 35 people in January and is in the process of hiring 35 more—most of which are for entry-level machine operators. Service Thread continues to expand in Scotland County due in part due to its historical commitment to the area and relatively low cost of doing business. But the company has not been completely exempt from financial challenges as it made some layoffs in 2008.

Todd explained that Service Thread has a prescreening process for applicants that involves a background check for drug violations and violent crimes. Past drug violations have been a big problem for potential hires in the last five years, Todd says. Once a candidate is hired, they are subjected to a hair sample drug test. “About 30 percent of applicants selected for employment fail that test,” Todd said. “In our society, a poor rural area, problems like that tend to be prevalent.”

Service Thread has also been challenged by the skills gap. Todd has received 200 applications for the 35 current openings. Only 20 percent of applicants possess the proper skill set. To upskill employees and train new ones, Service Thread has implemented an internal assessment program with compensation incentives. When this assessment process debuted in 2010, the company found that 48 percent of employees did not have the skills to succeed in their current position.

Looking for work

Further down Laurinburg’s abandoned Main Street—and across the railroad tracks Tanya Edge warns separate the safe from the “not safe” part of town—is the office to which jobless Scotland County residents must turn.

A small red awning and matching welcome mat frame the brick building that is the Scotland County JobLink Career Center, which operates as a middle-party between employers and individuals looking for work. Inside the office are research cubicles, a DMV-esque counter and a waiting area. Pamphlets advertise professional training courses at the local Richmond Community College and upcoming job fairs. A television blares an instructional video in the background: “Remember, it is said that it is easier to find a job once you have one... look for short-term work while you conduct your job search... Deliver pizzas or go into retail.”

Once someone submits their resume and applications, the center works to try to partner them with organizations looking to hire. Center Director Betty Galloway says her office has been bombarded particularly since major textile manufacturer Mohawk Industries closed last year with no sign of tapering off.

“Ever since 2002, there’s been a decline in Scotland County,” she says. Of visitors to her office, Galloway says, “They just come in looking for a job and say, ‘Who’s hiring?’”

The center offers various training programs like two-year degree funding assistance, re-employment job coaching and weekly workshops on how to prepare for interviews. “We have so many people in Scotland County looking for work, and yet we still have jobs but that need different skills levels than a lot of citizens have,” Galloway says.

For some, like 28-year-old Amnetta McNair, the search can go on for months. McNair, like many other unemployed Scotland County natives, worked in manufacturing until she was laid off in October of last year. Since then, she’s gone to a number of lengths to find a job.

“I’ve been doing everything,” she said. “I’ve been putting through the applications, I’ve been coming [to the unemployment center], I’ve submitted applications through the organization. I’ve been doing everything.”

While the center has been helpful in assisting her with the application process, McNair says that so far she has not been successful.

Although McNair currently receives unemployment benefits, she said it is getting harder to obtain a check from the local government. Regulations are becoming more strict, she explained, because individuals will file for unemployment even after they find jobs. If she doesn’t find work soon, McNair said she is planning to leave Laurinburg.

“You need to go all the way to a different city or different state to get more jobs. They’re moving them across seas and stuff. I think it’s going to take a long time for everything to get better,” she said. “If I don’t find work here, I’m planning on moving to a different state. A lot of people are doing it.”

For McNair, the solution to the unemployment problem lies in education, which has compelled her to cast her ballot for Obama.

Maria, a 35-year-old Scotland County native who did not wish to provide her last name, said it took her three years to find employment in Laurinburg­­—a job referred to her by a friend. The job industry isn’t improving, she said, because the local government doesn’t keep its promises. Officials have announced the implementation of new businesses and buildings, but residents are still waiting for results.

“[The unemployment situation] is still the same because [officials] said that they were going to have new places—which would mean new jobs—but they never made a building,” she said. “They put on the news years ago that we would have a new Target, a new Sears. We’re still waiting. If you look around, a lot of our buildings are empty.”

Ballot impact

Many small business owners, like Ira and Tanya Edge, cite county tax policy as a barrier to economic development in the Laurinburg and Scotland County area. Scotland County has one of the highest commercial property taxes in the state. Although property values are low—making it easier for businesses to expand into the area—some shy away from the tax burden.

“While that may be the perception, that may not be the reality,” Parker refutes. “We do have a fairly high tax rate but our valuations are on the lower side of the scale. Costs to businesses tend to be less.”

The sentiment among county residents is that there just need to be more jobs available. Icard’s office is working to spark job growth from within the county by focusing on small business entrepreneurship while recruiting outside industry. In addition to Service Thread, a major vehicle parts manufacturer is bringing 66 jobs and investing more than $57 million in Laurinburg in the next three years. “You’ll see a lot of companies make decisions based on what will happen in the election cycle,” Icard adds.

The local jobs problem provokes national dissatisfaction among some residents who hope the outcome of the upcoming presidential election will correct the nation’s economy and create jobs. Romney’s visit to Asheville in early October almost exclusively focused on the issue. Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory visited Scotland County Sept. 4 to visit a manufacturing plant and promote a stronger link between the employed and the jobless.

Obama has done the same in North Carolina, highlighting his plan for job creation during visits and at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September. Fortunately for the president, Scotland County is historically Democratic, with 57 percent of votes cast for Obama in 2008 and 77 percent of voters completing a Democratic straight party ticket in the 2010 midterm elections.

But the Edges simply can’t take four more years of the same economy. “We need a business man to run this country, that’s what we need.” Tanya said. “Do your research, nine times out of 10 people who are millionaires are self-made.” Ira’s cousin, Trey Edge, adamantly notes that he does not “like either one of them,” but feels that Romney can be relied upon to save, not spend, tax dollars while tightening up government assistance programs.

“[Democrats] can promise you everything in the world, but they’re not going to come through for that,” Trey said. “What eats away at me the most is everybody sitting around here, with me working as hard as I have to work. There are people just sitting around in the projects, and for people that need [government assistance] like the elderly and disabled, I understand and that’s fine, but then you got 10 people sitting around in one area, and only two out of 10 work, and the other eight live better than the ones that works.”

Some Scotland County residents, like workers Justin Rooms and Terry Farris, think Obama’s national policies will provoke local job growth. “We’ve got the highest taxes in the state… Obama gets it,” Rooms said. “He’s only been in office four years—you can’t get nothing done in four years. You got to give the man a chance.” Farris adds: “[Obama’s] talking to other countries and stuff, working out deals and stuff. And the man he’s running against, he don’t know nothing.”

Many residents, like Blackman, acknowledge that a president cannot fix what is wrong in Scotland County. Even though North Carolina is widely considered to be a swing state—where individual votes matter more—many residents simply do not see the point in casting a ballot.

“I don’t vote. I’ve never voted before, I never do. They say that, what’s his name? Romney? They say he’s not the right man for the job. They say Obama is. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me,” Blackman said.


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