By Jeff Keeling
As I pedaled my road bike along High Ridge Road Monday, up a steep hill and across the CSX rail line at the foot of Buffalo Mountain, the evocative aroma of burning leaves wafted across the crisp fall air. The mountain, beginning to be ablaze with color, was in sharp outline against the late afternoon blue skies, a blue the heat and haze of summer never quite allow.
It was all quite sublime – until I thought about the hundreds of folks just a few miles down that rail line, in Erwin, whose lives were turned upside down last week.
CSX is cutting 300 jobs and closing its rail yard in Erwin, as it announced last Thursday. In what some may perceive as an ironic twist, the announcement came the same day as positive job news that will mostly affect a site just north of Unicoi County and not far from Erwin. Allied Dispatch Solutions, a newish roadside assistance company, hopes to add nearly 500 jobs to its workforce.
That may be cold comfort to the CSX employees who are losing their jobs, which almost surely provide better pay and benefits than the Allied positions. This is by no means intended to minimize Allied’s positive impact on the community. Rather, it points to the rapid changes in our economy and the types of jobs that are out there.
Thanks largely to King Coal, the folks at the Erwin yard made a very good living fixing things, working with heavy tools and generally maintaining machines and equipment that have changed in degree but very little in kind since the mid-1850s. They’re part of a workforce sector that has taken its lumps in the age of automation, whereas Allied is on the cutting edge of technology, requiring a relatively small capital investment to provide remote telephone assistance with a cloud-based computer infrastructure.
The Allied example seems to be where many of our jobs are headed. My well-spoken, computer-literate son and daughter-in-law both spend their days ensconced in cubicles, headsets on, eyes on screens and fingers rapidly tapping keyboards. They’re providing a service in the information age, and I’m thankful their company provides – for the area – good pay and benefits plus a chance to advance.
The question is whether the types of jobs primarily available in this area, and really in our economy as a whole, will pay enough for people to raise families with some level of comfort and security just as good jobs at the factory, the rail yard or the mines once did. A related question is whether our education system and our culture will produce enough young people with the skills and the work ethic to perform well in those jobs, so they don’t go elsewhere.
But this week, speculation about those questions is of little consequence to 300 families and, for that matter, the town of Erwin. A quick study from East Tennessee State University suggests that, conservatively, the shutdown will result in the loss of an additional 90 jobs through indirect and “induced” effects, for a total labor income loss of $18.8 million. This in a town of 6,000.
Further indirect and induced effects in Washington and Carter counties are estimated at 78 jobs and $2.6 million in labor income.
Last Thursday, economic development and government officials in Unicoi and Carter counties immediately began putting their heads together with folks at the Washington County Economic Development Council to begin collaborating about ways to address this blow. With the coal industry on its heels from not just regulation but from cheap natural gas as a competitor, those coal train volumes are unlikely to rebound any time soon.
That makes the regional collaboration promised by those officials late last week all the more crucial. The changes our region and this nation are undergoing as we become the latest global superpower to enter the challenges of middle age require nothing less than ethical, hard-working leadership by our local elected and appointed officials.