Chamber pres says qualified workers needed

COVINGTON — Chamber of Commerce President Hunter Hall told county commissioners Tuesday the Chamber and Office of Economic Development are developing a “holistic economic strategy” to address the need for a qualified workforce.

During his economic development update, Hall said the Chamber and Office of Economic Development are reworking a strategy put in place three years ago, taking into account three areas: industries where goods are produced in Newton and sold outside county lines, like products produced by General Mills or SKC; service industries, like salons, general merchandise stores and business offices; and the dependent portion of the workforce, or those who are retired or too young to enter the workforce.

While service jobs will continue to be filled, economic base jobs that have a greater impact on the local economy require skilled labor, and there is a shortage, as dependents increase, Hall said.

In economic development a multiplier of five is used to determine local impact, he said.

He gave this example: A manager at a local industry makes $50,000 a year and buys a new truck at Ginn Motor; the sales manager at Ginn celebrates the sale by taking his family to Bullritos; the waitress at Bullritos buys groceries at Kroger with the money she’s earned; the general manager at Kroger buys a truck from Covington Ford. If that general manager job at the initial industry his lost, the entire system breaks down.

“Workforce is so critical and the reason is that with the amount of people that are retiring, right now, with industries, we don’t have enough warm bodies. I’m not talking about skilled labor. We don’t have enough warm bodies to fill vacancies” of laborers retiring from industry, Hall said. He said 22 percent of Newton’s workforce is employed in industry, higher than the state average of 17 percent.

Hall said the void has to be filled as qualified workers retire, and the way to do that is to make sure local students get proper training, along with recruiting new residents to live in Newton.

When considering locating or relocating workers, companies look at schools, retail, arts and recreation, he said. Hall said he has spoken with real estate agents who have helped Baxter executives relocate and their top concern is schools. He said the local school system is improving and the Chamber is partnering with the Newton College and Career Academy and local colleges, as well as New Leaf Development Center in Walkers Bend to address training needs for a qualified workforce. Asked by Commissioner J.C. Henderson what training students need to be qualified for jobs at industries like Baxter International, Hall said the Chamber will work with Baxter and the local schools to find out and make sure those qualifications are met.

During citizens’ comments following Hall’s speech, three citizens — Dennis Taylor, Ed Applewhite and Thomas Buckner — questioned Hall’s presentation, noting that unemployment in Newton continues to be around 10 percent and there are plenty of “warm bodies” to fill the gap left by retiring workers. They also asked what evidence there is that the school system is improving, given the recently released NCSS SAT scores that declined in all subject areas over last year.