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Macon mulls workforce challenges

While it doesn’t seem like much of a news flash, it has emerged as one of the top concerns in Macon County economic development circles: the workforce is aging.

“It actually is something to be concerned about. It is getting worse,” James McCoy, an economic development consultant for Macon County, told a gathering of local elected leaders last week. “We have a need for a younger, more professional workforce.”

Leaders from Franklin, Highlands, and Macon County held a joint meeting last Thursday (July 23) to hear a progress report on a new economic development strategy for the county. Over the past several months, McCoy and other economic development officials have been systematically meeting with the county’s largest employers to help chart a new path for economic development.

A recurring theme among those interviewed is concern over the aging workforce, McCoy said.

While the number of people over 65 is growing in the county, the number under the age of 44, and particularly under the age of 29, is shrinking.

“The big thing we heard was the age of our community and the age of our workforce,” said Ed Shatley, chairman of the Macon Economic Development Commission. “If we don’t correct this we will become a community of retirees who require many more services than a younger workforce.”

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While most of the officials gathered for last week’s meeting at the Mill Creek Country Club were themselves retirees over 60, a new sports bar in downtown Franklin called Mulligan’s was hopping with a young crowd listening to a live band and generally enjoying life in Macon County.

Camped out at a table in the middle of the bar were four young men — a teacher, a banker, a plumber, and an electrical contractor — enjoying a guy’s night out. All of them were 33 years old but had moved to Franklin in their early 20s.

“We grew up in a big city in a not so nice area,” said Ryan Haley, the teacher in the bunch. “Franklin is a nice place to live and raise a family and hang out and not worry about whether your neighbor is a drug dealer.”

Today, they are all married with kids. That wasn’t the case when they moved here as single guys after college, but they all had a life goal of eventually marrying and sought out a good place to start a family.

“We didn’t want to raise our kids in the city,” said Seth Greenley, the electrical contractor.

The four generally enjoy the outdoors, another thing Macon County has going for it. Of course, there are things they miss.

“The movies and restaurants,” said Greenley.

In a perfect world, Greenley envisions sitting at an outdoor café with his wife while people stroll up and down the sidewalks of town.

“Now, it seems the whole county shuts down at 6 p.m.,” Greenley said.

That’s one area of focus McCoy had mentioned as well.

“A vibrant downtown is one of the most important things to attracting young people,” McCoy said. “Downtowns are immeasurably important to quality of life. Communities where downtowns have done really well have consistently seen young people want to stick around.”

Another top amenity in attracting a younger workforce has thankfully been checked off the list recently: approving the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks in bars and restaurants in Franklin.

Until the vote passed just three years ago, simply buying a beer during a night on the town was not possible.

“That was an important move,” said Jim Bo Ledford, the owner of a plumbing business. “You had to go buy a six-pack of beer and sit around at home. It’s fun to get out and socialize.”

All four guys lament that county voters didn’t approve a $9.4 million recreation bond two years ago. If the county wants more young people to move here, that would have helped. It called for ballfields, an indoor pool, and myriad recreation facilities that younger people, especially those with kids, would find appealing. Yet Macon County’s aging voters didn’t approve the bond.

While salaries in Macon County are lower than the state average — something that troubles the economic development experts — Josh Brant, a banker at Wachovia, said it wasn’t a deal breaker.

“With our generation, it’s not how much money you make. It’s quality of life,” said Brant. “You can have a good quality of life here. The thing lacking is jobs.”

While economic development leaders wrangle with ways to attract a younger workforce, Brant and his friends contend that you need to create jobs first and the workforce will follow. Their generation is more mobile, willing to move where there’s a job in their field if it’s a decent place to live.

A plight often lamented in economic development circles is the out-migration of mountain kids for college who never return home because there aren’t good jobs. When asked which should be recruited first — young workers or jobs for those workers — Shatley responded: “Which is first, the chicken or the egg?”

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