Residents Flee Bristol
by Lewis Loflin
Why invest in Bristol, VA/TN or anywhere in Tri-Cities or Southwest, Virginia? To quote one local official, "high unemployment actually can be an advantage because it increases the number of available workers...Our labor force is a huge advantage since the county unemployment rate is twice the state average, and regionally, the unemployment rates range from 3.5 percent to 15 percent..."
The vast majority of people here do work, but many can't earn enough to live on. The 214 counties of core Appalachia have 104 institutions of higher learning, but we only attract Wal-Mart as a major industry. In 1980, 59 of the 214 Appalachia counties in these five states were classified as "distressed" by the Appalachian Regional Commission. In 1990, this figure increased to 78 of 214 counties. In 2000, this figure increased to 83 counties.
The more millions government pours into the region the worse things get. In much of Southwest Virginia almost one-fourth of the population works for the government. The above data is from Economic and Demographic Trends in the Mid-Appalachia Region by MDC Inc. June 2002.
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From a former resident:
At last, there are others who agree with my opinions of Southwestern Virginia and East Tennessee!! I am a Bristol native whom was forced to leave my hometown after I finished school. The reason, I couldn't get a job that paid above minimum wage.
After living four years in Ohio, I decided to try and move back home. To my surprise I discovered that things have only gotten worse. I have over four years of professional business experience, and am very educated. After 3 months of trying, the best job that I was offered was $7 per hour as a telephone operator.
Is that even above the poverty level? When I declined I was informed by the hiring manager that I was an ingrate and that he knew of "hundreds" of other people who would work for that amount. $7 per hour is over 85% less than any job that I have ever held in Cincinnati.
I dearly wanted to move back to the Tri-Cities, but found the economic situation so bad and the level of radical fundamentalist Christian dogma that so controls all aspects of the region has spewed out of control.
It is a beautiful region, the mountains are awe inspiring. But it has simply gotten much more backwards since my departure. The region continues to decay into poverty and ignorance, while most educated young people continue to vacate the region.
My parents lost their jobs of over 30 plus years at Raytheon and Electrolux in Bristol and were forced to move, at near retirement age, 2000 miles westward to start a new life. Despite all the hardship they experienced, the loss of their retirement plans and home, they said that leaving Bristol was the best thing they had ever done. Obviously, I won't be moving back home any time soon. Has anyone else experienced a similar situation?
Ken S., Cincinnati , OH USA - Saturday, October 06, 2001
ING Investments for some reason dropped its investment rankings about 2002, so that data is about five years old. But the Kingsport Times-News in November 8, 2005 announces, Tri-Cities ranks 77th nationwide as best place to live out of rankings for 331 metro regions. This is according to the 2005 Sperling's Best Places list. See www.bestplaces.net. The Tri-Cities is referred to as the Johnson-City-Kingsport-Bristol, Tenn.-VA.
But ING defined 125 metro areas while Sperling defined 331. They show Tri-Cities ranked first in Tennessee beating out No. 103 Knoxville, No. 205 Nashville, No. 210 Chattanooga, and No. 304 Jackson. But the fact is Tennessee as a state on the national level ranks very low in education, income, etc. According to Sperling, "Health care ranked very high...a reasonable cost of living, pleasant climate, less traffic congestion and relatively low crime rates."
This is all very true and ING ranked the region as one of the best retirement communities in 2001. But when I contacted Sperling and asked why they didn't figure in economic issues, they replied, "We can't track everything." Go to their website and one word stands out, "retirement."
And while local politicians applaud the rankings, a closer look reveals some troubling information. Tennessee ranked far below Virginia in general, and Tri-Cities ranks far below most of Virginia: Charlottesville, Va. - home to the University of Virginia - ranked No. 1; No. 7 Atlanta; No. 8 Asheville; No. 11 Roanoke; No. 13 Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; No. 15 Lynchburg; No. 55 Richmond-Petersburg, Va.; and oddly No. 81 Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point, N.C., a booming region was ranked lower. Asheville is a two hour drive from Bristol ranks No. 8, while nearby is No. 172 Wilmington, N.C. and No. 254 Hickory-Morganton, N.C.
But according to Jeff Fleming, assistant Kingsport city manager for development, "We typically score well in climate, cost of living, heath care and transportation. We lag in education attainment, arts and culture, and economy, but when you look at the big picture, we look very attractive from the outside." But form the inside is another matter.
While Sperling cares little for working class issues and more for retirement, they do reveal some terrible trends. The national per capita income is $21,658, but only $13,472 or almost 38% below the national average for Bristol, Virginia, while the cost of living is only 16% below the national average.
National household income is $44,958, but for Bristol, Tennessee is $33,380 or 26% below the national average, while the cost of living is only 10% below the national average. For Bristol, Virginia household income is 32% below the national average.
Jeff Fleming might be right, we look good from the outside. For years they have used our lower cost of living to justify low wage scales. Mexico has a very low cost of living too.
Typical are these letters in the Kingsport Times-News March 24, 2006,
Couldn't get a job in Tri-Cities
As a student in the Hawkins County school system, I listened to the engineers from Eastman talk about the opportunities available to those with the right education. I graduated as the valedictorian of my high school class with honors and went on to graduate from Tennessee Tech University with bachelor's degrees in both chemical engineering and chemistry. Upon graduation, I had a 3.4 GPA and almost two years of co-op experience in the chemical industry.
So, in 2004/2005 when I was seeking employment back home, I felt good about my chances. Eastman, BAE, and NFS all had entry-level openings. To my surprise, I was not offered a single interview. How can a company know about your work ethic, skills, and drive if they won't even give you a chance?
Several of my friends from college had been trying to come back home to start their careers, but most faced the same fate. For several years before my graduation, none of the local companies came to Tech's campus to recruit any of the homegrown talent that was there. I understand that Eastman is finally going back there to recruit, but that is too little, too late for so many of us. What kind of example does that set for the next generation?
If someone wanted to pursue an engineering or science degree and work in the area, why would they follow that path when they know of so many who did and were denied their dreams?
In spite of it all, I am very blessed. In my current job, I get to work on the rocket motors for the current and future space exploration vehicles. It's just a shame I had to go 2,000 miles from home to find a company that appreciates my knowledge and skills.
Heather Rhoton, Ogden, Utah
Area's brain trust outsourced
March 28, 2006
After reading all of the articles stating there is such a need for educated individuals to fill the job market in Eastern Tennessee, I too, had to laugh. After graduating from East Tennessee State University with a high grade point average, spending one year co-oping at Eastman Chemical Company and specializing in the field that I am now enjoying great success in, I had to move 650 miles away to North Carolina to find employment.
Most of the people I graduated with that went on to college have also moved out of state to find decent paying jobs in their field of study. The problem was and still is that those in power to employ look to out-of-state universities instead of in-state, thinking that those institutions are teaching better skill sets. The other problem is for decades, the companies promoted from within individuals without the education, skill level, or competencies necessary for certain jobs just because the individual had seniority. I saw this firsthand when I applied time and time again for positions at a major manufacturing company.
Now they are reaping the benefits of what was sown for so many years. Like the other person in Utah, I am now a happy North Carolinian working for a community college teaching young people. It is a shame that the brain trust of the area has been outsourced to other states that now enjoy educated and skilled workers.
Deborah S. Clark Greenville, N.C.
The editorials below are based on the discredited Tarnoff Report that I address below. The terrible labor conditions in this region (low pay and class warfare) force most of our college graduates to flee the region in droves. Heather and Deborah are just a small sample of what goes on here.
Poor work ethic not the real issue
Printed Kingsport Times-News April 9, 2006
I commend Heather Rhoton (3/24) and Deborah Clark (3/28) as examples of the many qualified workers we have in Tri-Cities, yet their fate is all too common. I also laughed at the editorial about the need for high-tech workers. I was furious with the misguided editorial "Strong Work Ethic Sadly Lacking in Region" (Nov. 6). What is wrong with this picture? Is that why Heather and Deborah had to flee Tri-Cities? Why is our lazy, shiftless workforce highly sought elsewhere? Eastman CEO Ferguson has whined about high-tech workers since he got here, yet he isn't hiring. I checked Eastman.com, and there are no jobs listed for Kingsport, but it did announce a new plant in China.
As the Tarnoff report clearly stated, local business refuses to pay better wages to get the people they need. CEO Ferguson has a big problem paying less money and benefits in a social culture that holds education and achievement in contempt. As I was informed by one local business, college graduates don't mix into the local workforce, so "we don't hire people with college." The problem isn't work ethic or education, it's a cultural problem of social apartheid combined with an abusive, low-wage employment system that's driven thousands of qualified people to leave the area.
This leaves too many unqualified people not only illiterate, but often into drug and alcohol abuse. Their children are often unmotivated as well. Unless local culture changes, let's just ship Eastman Chemical to China and get it over with.
Lewis Loflin Bristol, Va.
It's not the workers, but the wages.
Printed Kingsport Times-News May 3, 2004
I wish to express my concern about the report "The Skills Gap in Our Region," a copy of which I obtained from Dr. Tarnoff. The sponsor of the research is Eastman Chemical and some biased government agencies protecting their jobs. Of 2,000 surveys, they got only 118 responses or three percent. Of 40,795 employees mentioned, almost 20 percent are from Eastman, and well over half are in 24 firms. Page 31 points out why these companies have the employee problems they whine about. While the survey did inquire about using abusive temp agencies, they failed to factor in subcontractors, many operating as temp agencies mixing in lower pay, no benefit employees off the company books. This often creates low worker morale and management problems.
When asked about pay issues, they answered "going rate," which here is among the lowest in the nation and why ING Investments ranks the Tri-Cities as one of the worst places to earn a living. The report indicates the available qualified labor pool is limited by the refusal of firms to pay better wages. They refuse to even train anyone as the Times-News correctly pointed out.
The report reveals there's no real skills gap or labor shortage, but a severe wage gap. They want better-trained, minimum wage workers that won't relocate. Most skills and vocational training being taught in local colleges are a waste of time. I commend County Commissioner Jack Sitgreaves for pointing out what happens to our college graduates.
Before we trash our workforce, let's get the facts. It's time to consider the abusive labor tactics and mismanagement at local businesses that no amount of cheap labor and more useless education will ever fix.
Lewis Loflin Bristol, Va.
From Bristol TN-VA: A Good Place to Leave put out by one fed-up resident:
Bristol TN-VA is NOT a good place to live. I moved here in 1997 after retiring from 28 years of military service. I would return to any of places I ever lived while on active duty. Not so for Bristol TN-VA. As of September 2002, our house is for sale and we are out of here -- we have no idea where we will move -- but it will not be NE TN.
Here is a list of what's wrong with this area.
- Economy dominated by low-wage manufacturing and service jobs. The local barons who own these small businesses do not want good jobs brought into the area because they know they would lose their workers to higher-paying industries. These local business leaders conspire with and maintain pressure on our political leaders to keep out meaningful economic development.
- Politics dominated by a coalition based in the Chambers of Commerce, churches, civic clubs, and country clubs, consisting of: The owners of the low-wage industries who do not want higher-wage jobs coming in -- with the result that there is essentially no economic development in the entire region (unless you consider more $6.00 an hour jobs "economic development"). The local economy, especially in Bristol, is dominated by small manufacturing and service businesses, locally-owned, paying $6.00 - $8.00 an hour, many with no benefits.
- Local fundamentalist religious leaders who do oppose anything not "biblical."
- Young people leaving. The only population growth is retirees -- who demand much from the present but add nothing to the future of a community. Economic and political myopia.
- Hostility to those who "are not from around here." Of all the places I have ever lived, this is the only one where, when you meet someone, the first comment out of their mouth is: "Oh, you're not from around here." It's not said to mean "Welcome" -- it means "I don't know you, our daddies did not grow up together, your granddaddy didn't work with my granddaddy, you're not married to my cousin, so I have no use for you." If you want to be shut-out of normal community life, this is the place for you -- if you're "not from around here."
The population of Bristol is less prosperous than the population of Virginia. The poverty rate in Bristol is 70% higher than the Virginia rate. The unemployment rate is 50% higher than the corresponding rate in Virginia. The per capita income for Bristolians is only 75% of the per capita income for Virginians. The proportion of Bristol residents over the age of 25 without a high school diploma is four times as high as in Virginia. Given the relative poverty and poor health status of the population, it seems clear that people in Bristol would benefit from increased access to primary care.
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