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Where to from here? Graduates wishing to stay in the region find themselves facing career, lifestyle compromises

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Turn to the classified pages in any Western North Carolina newspaper and the employment section bears similar traits. Jobs listed tend to be those in the growing service sector — housekeepers, night shift hotel clerks, secretaries, wait staff, retail sales. And listings under the “professional” heading are sparse.

Healthcare is big.

“You’ll find a tremendous demand for people who want to remain in the area for those professions,” said Paul Evans, executive director of the Institute for the Economy and the Future at Western Carolina University.

It’s what brought Frances Owl-Smith, the first female member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee to become a physician, back to Western North Carolina. When she finished school, graduating from Western and going on to earn her medical degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there weren’t any jobs in Owl-Smith’s specialty — pathology — available in the area. Now, Owl-Smith heads Haywood Regional Medical Center’s pathology department.

“Things change and more people retire, it just fluctuates,” she said.

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Skilled trades such as those relating to construction, as well as teaching and other education-related positions also are fairly common.

And so those local graduates who want to remain in the area — and who have chosen to major in something else — often are left wanting.

“If you’re wanting to stay in the area, you are probably going to have to tailor your education,” Owl-Smith said.

The few professional level jobs in fields with a lower demand may already be taken, or applicants lose a competitive battle amongst their peers. Consequently, graduates often are forced to choose between location and career. If the career is the priority, job hunters need to set their sights abroad, said Mardy Ashe, Western Carolina University’s Director of Career Services/Cooperative Education.

“Certainly they’re better off if they’re willing to relocate,” she said.


Starting a career

Set to enter her senior year as an accounting major at Western this fall, Tara Carrington is one of the region’s best and brightest. Carrington grew up in Clyde, the youngest of three, and graduated from Tuscola High School in 2003.

At Western she holds a 4.0 grade average in her accounting curriculum, which helped her earn the title of the first-ever recipient of the Outstanding Minority Accounting Student Scholarship presented by the North Carolina Certified Public Accountant Foundation. She is a member of Western’s Honors College, she has been active with the Organization of Ebony Students, helped with a mentoring program for honors students, and participated in Project CARE, an outreach program for incoming minority students.

Carrington is a self-described planner — she likes to know what’s ahead of her. She doesn’t plan on being like the bevy of graduating seniors and graduate school students still looking for a job at Meet the Firms night held April 19 — less than a month before diplomas were to be handed out.

She had an interview Monday afternoon for an internship at Champion Credit Union, a summer job that would allow her to live at home with her parents and gain valuable work experience in banking, teller services and loans.

Carrington’s sister, a 2004 Western graduate and accounting major, works at Capitol Bank in Asheville. However, Carrington’s hope to get involved in account auditing means that she’s thinking on a larger scale.

“I’m definitely thinking Charlotte or Atlanta, because there’s not too many opportunities in the area unfortunately,” she said.

What could be done to keep smart, local students like her in the area?

“Provide them with opportunities,” Carrington said. “The first place we look is out, because we automatically assume there’s nothing here.”


Location, location, location

When Western alumni contact Career Services looking for employment, Ashe said she always asks one question first, “Are you willing to relocate?”

If they say no, and they’re in a somewhat specialized field, Ashe asks again, “Can you be somewhat flexible?” Maybe the right job isn’t available in the area, but it is somewhere in the state, or somewhere in the Southeast.

Consequently, Ashe said students who are looking for jobs in a particular location are encouraged to model their studies after what the economy needs.

“We do tell students, if you want to go back to a specific area, do some research on that area,” she said.

Students must be realistic and can’t assume that they will be able to find work in their field anywhere, much less here.

“It’s going to be tough, I think, for a college graduate to stay in this area. Again, a lot of it depends on the major,” Ashe said.

For example, according to North Carolina Employment Security Commission statistics, there will be 450 healthcare support occupations available in Jackson County alone in 2006, with an estimated average wage of $10.37. Healthcare practitioners and technical occupations will number 1,160, with an average wage of $35.78. There will be 1,900 food preparation jobs with an average wage of $7.55. And there will be 1,420 sales jobs with an average wage of $9.28. Information about all job sectors on a county-by-county basis is available on the ESC’s Web site.

Those who are set on staying in Western North Carolina, who haven’t chosen to major in one of the fields in high demand, or who get edged out due to high competition, often may have to renegotiate their priorities.

“They end up maybe taking something else, or moving away,” Ashe said.

If students decide just to take a job, it may be something completely unrelated to a their chosen field of study — but at least it’s income.

Such is the case for one Sylva-based art major turned retail sales associate. Having graduated from Western in December 2004 the retail worker — who wished to remain nameless due to their fear of jeopardizing their current employment — was unable to find a job in her field or anywhere else for that matter, for nearly three months, a mark of the local economy’s tendency to be seasonal.

She wanted to be working in a local museum, or a gallery, open her own gallery, or even just get a secretarial position at the university that would pay enough and come with benefits so that she would have the time and the means to focus on her art.

But with few such jobs in the area, $16,000 worth of college debt, and what she said was little interest from professors in helping prepare her for a world other than graduate school, the retail worker found herself hocking cigarettes and prescriptions at a local drugstore. She hated it, and looking for something with a slightly more promising future, got a job at a downtown retail store that at the time offered what could turn into a managerial role.

Since taking the job, the person who hired the worker has left. Instead of being a manager, the worker is working full-time for $7.50 with no benefits other than an employee discount.

“I’m willing to compromise on a lower wage because I do live 10 minutes from work,” she said. “I do like the area, and we’ve got a nice trailer, we live on right on the river.”

However, after taxes the money the she makes leaves no disposable income to direct toward her art. She found a continuing education pottery class through Southwestern Community College that for $60 gives her access to materials that she can’t afford otherwise.

“I can’t pass that up, especially if I can pay with a credit card,” she said.

She’d like to get involved with Jackson County’s Green Energy Park, which will provide potters with low-rent studio space and methane fueled kilns. At this point though, any amount of rent seems exorbitant.

“I’m pretty much constantly looking for a job that pays more per hour that I think I’d be able to stand,” the worker said.

However, she knows that there’s a line of students waiting to take her job, and competition for other positions has kept her number of outgoing applications high and requests for interviews low.

“There must be a lot of people in situations similar to me,” she said.

But trying to balance an artist’s conscience with the local job market is increasingly difficult.

“I don’t want to work at Wal-Mart and I don’t want to work at the casino,” she said.


It’s not what, but who

One of the biggest mistakes a graduating student, or anyone for that matter, makes is relying on mass-market Internet sites to find a job.

“That is one of the least successful ways to job search,” Ashe said. “The most successful way is to network.”

While looking at an individual company’s Web site for jobs isn’t bad, job hunters should be pro-active, seek out people they know, and send real, printed out resumes rather than email versions when possible, Ashe said.

Connections are what helped Katie Cochran get her first post-college job at the Zachary-Tolbert House in Cashiers.

A bright, personable Highlands native, Cochran went out of state to study anthropology at the College of Charleston. She specialized in archeology, doing her field schoolwork on four Lowcountry plantations, and studying abroad in Turkey her senior year. She was working at Charlestown Landing after graduation, but the program ran out of funding — a common occurrence in her profession, she said.

In Highlands, Cochran’s parents, who own Mirror Lake Antiques, were discussing her plight with Martha Black, the archeological chair for the Cashiers Historical Society, who had known Cochran since she was born. As it turned out, the Historical Society was looking for an archeologist.

Now the archeological assistant for the society — Cochran is unqualified to bear the archeologist title in full until she earns her master’s degree — she is using the position to further her career. Her position at the Zachary-Tolbert House has included a more supervisory component than she originally planned for, but the work is paying off.

“That has been the best experience ever,” she said.

Ideally, she hopes to go to William and Mary College — the top archeological school in the country — in fall of 2007.

Cochran is one of the lucky ones who found a job in her field, but as in many cases, it’s not the lack of a job, it’s the lack of a specific type of job.

“As a child I said I’d never come back here,” she said. “As I got older, I realized it would be a good place to raise a family. The only problem with it is I couldn’t really work up here in my field as much as I’d like to.”

The area doesn’t provide the time stamp Cochran is looking for. In Charleston, most artifacts were dated in the 1670s. Here it’s from the 1700s forward.

“I like older than that personally,” she said.

And the terrain leaves much to be desired.

“I just simply don’t like to dig through rock,” Cochran said.


Improving the market

Those hunting for jobs and those working to better the local economy each have recommendations about how to increase the number of quality jobs available in the area.

“I want to say it just needs to expand, but no, because that just means they’re going to cut down our mountains and our trees,” Carrington said.

Growth would change the very nature of what it is that longtime residents and those who come here and decide they want to stay love about the area.

“I don’t think it’s anything the area can do without losing its charm,” Cochran said, of moves to better the job market. “I wouldn’t be who I am without growing up where I did.”

For Cochran, the growth strikes both a personal and professional chord.

“I’m watching Highlands get developed like crazy and it’s scaring me because I’m sure it’s not being checked,” she said, noting the area’s potential for historic artifacts.

At the Institute for the Economy and the Future, executive director Evans said that the focus is on three areas — creating, improving or attracting businesses. Creating business comes in the form of small and entrepreneurial business development by giving young people or adults the skills they need to start from the ground up. Improving businesses involves helping them grow, becoming more competitive and profitable. And attracting businesses — while formerly having been focused on recruiting large companies — now is more aimed toward marketing the human capitol, the knowledge available in a particular area and letting the companies come on their own.

“We have to do all three and we have to do them now perhaps more than ever,” Evans said.

Creating a new business is part of what brought Haywood Regional Medical Center’s pathology department head Owl-Smith back to the area, except it wasn’t her own — it was her daughter’s.

Owl-Smith’s daughter, Natalie A. Smith, also a graduate of Western, co-owns LIFT Culture House in Cherokee, which includes a contemporary art gallery and coffee house. Once Owl-Smith moved back — attracted by family as well as a new job — her other daughter, Hannah, a lawyer who was practicing in New Mexico, also decided to return, and is now a lawyer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

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