In a trio of roundtable discussions at Johnson City’s Carnegie Hotel, the 1st District Congressman spoke with manufacturers, women, infrastructure builders and state legislators, but common themes wove the sessions together.
Roe led each roundtable with the same question, “What keeps you up at night?” and found that similar worries rob people of sleep, regardless of demographic or occupation.
Joshua King of Bluff City’s Kintronic Labs and John Stewart of Erwin’s Nuclear Fuel Services said the lack of skilled, reliable workers makes hiring locally more difficult.
Both said workers retiring from their aging workforces are becoming harder to replace, hinting at potential employee shortages and operational problems in the future.
“I operate in a fairly high-consequence industry, so ensuring that we operate our plant in a safe, compliant manner and we don’t have a catastrophic upset keeps me up at night,” Stewart said. “The only way we can prevent that is to have highly trained, skilled workers working around the clock, doing their jobs in a professional and dedicated manner.”
Nuclear Fuel Services, which makes fuel for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered vessels, hired 40 people last year just to keep up with natural attrition, he said, and have hired 55 since January to make modest employment gains.
Training those new workers to safely handle the dangerous materials used at the plant takes tremendous effort, Stewart said.
Steve Darden, of the Hunter, Smith & Davis Law Firm and a former Johnson City commissioner, told the lawmaker that many local high school graduates lack “soft skills” needed for employment, like punctuality and regular attendance.
Roe said he believes one factor contributing to labor shortages is the slow population gain in the area. Not an indictment of local birthrates, he said migration trends show young people moving from rural areas to metropolitan areas, chasing jobs and quality of life amenities.
The resulting “brain drain” siphons skilled workers and young professionals away from the area, the lack of which causes major employers to overlook the region when considering new sites for capital investment.
King also asked Roe about tariffs, as a trade war between the U.S. and China raged with higher taxes placed on imported and exported goods and materials.
There are only two manufacturers in the world that produce a component King’s Kintronic Labs uses to make its radio equipment. One is in Switzerland and charges at least twice as much as the other, a Chinese company.
Roe said Chinese President Xi Jinping may be preparing to draw out the trade war until after the U.S.’s next presidential election in hopes the country’s next leader will be easier to deal with. China’s economy is being hurt by President Donald Trump’s tariffs, Roe said, and both leaders are “waiting to see who blinks.”
Some of the 13 attendees at Roe’s women-focused roundtable also raised the issue of workforce development. Many of those concerned with the area’s shallow labor pool were either business operators or local officials who have worked to develop the region’s economies.
Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said she worries about finding jobs to replace the hundreds lost when railroad operator CSX shut down a rail maintenance yard in 2015.
There’s a definite need, they said, for increased access to mental health and addiction treatment services. Substance abuse prevents many residents from finding and keeping gainful employment.
Dr. Bethany Flora, recently named Northeast State Community College’s president, studied collegiate recovery programs at East Tennessee State University, and suggested instituting one locally.
“It doesn’t take a lot, and it provides support on campus for students to take an opportunity between classes to hit up a 12-step program,” she said. “We don’t have the resources to provide that, but I know some of you in health care do.”
Roe said addiction, especially to opioids, is devastating the region. More beds are needed for addiction and mental health treatment, he said, pointing to the prospects of repurposing unused public facilities, like the former Greene Valley Developmental Center.
“We don’t have that infrastructure here,” he said. “We’re going to work on that as a community, as a region.”
In Roe’s infrastructure roundtable, construction industry leaders said they were worried a total shutdown of immigration from Central American countries could drain their labor pools.
“One area, Phil, you haven’t addressed is the impact of immigration on infrastructure,” Gerald Thomas, of Johnson City’s Thomas Construction, said. “Something needs to be done. I’d like to see them legal and green carded, but we’re going to have to have a plan where we can hire some of these people.”
Roe acknowledged past congressional failings on immigration reform, including a bill that failed when Republicans were in control of the House and Senate. With a declining national birth rate that will not provide enough workers to fill open positions, Roe said the green card system needs changes.
“We’re going to have to rely on immigrants,” he said. “We don’t have enough people that will do the work.”
Grant Summers, of Summers-Taylor said blaming immigrants from Latin America for causing unemployment in the United States was a fallacy.
The construction specialists also suggested an increase of the federal gas tax and new freight fees to help pay for some of the country’s needed road infrastructure improvements.
Without a system to accurately measure the miles traveled of private drivers, most agreed the gas tax and fees were the best way to charge for usage.
Summers warned the congressman that instituting an infrastructure plan like the one posited by Trump, which relies heavily on private investment and buy-ins from local government, would likely concentrate upgrades in the large metropolitan areas that can afford the required funding matches. In other areas, it might lead to toll roads, he said.
“Infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Summers said. “But you have to pay for it.”