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Metro’s economy skyrocketing, best-‘ever’ records, official says
Thursday, 21 July 2022 13:59

From Staff Reports

The Asheville metropolitan area’s economy is — and has been — skyrocketing, the Council of Independent Business Owners was told during a meeting July 8 at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center.

“As of May 2022, we had a record number of jobs, a record number of people in the labor force and a record number of people working — ever!!!” according to Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board and executive director of the Land of Sky Regional Council. 

Ramsey’s assertion was made during his presentation on “The State of the Local Economy.” About 35 people attended the early-morning meeting on what — for many — was a weeklong Fourth of July holiday vacation.

To its members, CIBO had promoted Ramsey’s presentation as addressing the following questions:

• What do employers need? 

• Where are the job-seekers? 

• What are the statistics on Buncombe’s economy? 

Speaking before Ramsey was Dr. John Gossett, president of A-B Tech, who gave an update on activities at the area’s community college. (For details, see separate story on this page.)

Ramsey began his address with praise for the community college chief, noting that, as for “Dr. Gossett — he does amazing work at A-B Tech.”

Ramsey then said he felt compelled to give a “shout out to (Buncombe County) commissioners (Terri) Wells and (Al) Whitesides, who are in attendance.” (Ramsey was a long-time chairman of the Buncombe Board of Commissioners.)

Ramsey, who noted that “the workforce board is made up of private employers,” asserted,  “Over the past 20 years, we’ve added about 100,000 (residents) to our area” population.

“Over the next 20 years, we expect to add 150,000 more people (in Asheville metro area). That 100,000 is about the population of (neighboring) Henderson County....

“Over the past 20 years, the economy in our area doubled. We’re not necessarily the same community we were 20 years ago.

“As of May 2022, the Asheville metro area’s unemployment rate was 3 percent, matching the Buncombe jobless rate,” Ramsey said. “The (metro area’s) total labor force is 223,673 workers.” (The Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area encompasses Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties.)

Ironically, the Asheville area’s jobless rate “soared to the worst” in North Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic, “so we went from lowest unemployment to highest,” Ramsey said. 

However, since then, “We’ve increased the number of people working and the number of unemployed people is a record low,” he said.

After a pause, Ramsey added, “But that is tempered by housing cost in our region,” the high cost of which is a big problem for both employees and employers. 

“In general, we have the lowest unemployment rate in the state,” Ramsey said of the metro area.

“Only two sectors tend to pay higher than regional average wages above the North Carolina average,” he said, noting that they include health care, with wages $3,000 — or 7 percent higher — than the state average; and hospitality and tourism, with wages $2,000 higher than state average

“In our region, there are at least two jobs open for every person who is unemployed,” Ramsey asserted.

What’s more, he noted, “Our region is older than the state — or the national — average.”

Speaking more broadly, Ramsey said, “When employers talked about the challenges of hiring individuals, they talked about good jobs. They’re worried about where their workers are going to live, based on pay scales. Housing is a workforce issue. The other thing, it’s a math problem. They just don’t have the individuals to meet that need. That’s why growing population helps meet that need.

“I think that that (affordable workforce housing) is a systemic challenge to our region. It’s going to take a true collaboration among all of us to try to get to a better place, if we want to be successful.

“The cost of living factor is causing (Asheville metro area) employers to lose people to other (less expensive) areas,” Ramsey pointed out.

What’s more, he said, “Childcare is a challenge/obstacle,” along with workers suffering from a “skills gap” in filling job openings requiring different training.

To that end, he recommended the following:

• Increase postsecondary credential attainment with dual enrollment (career and college promise)

•. Encourage work-ready communties . (Ramsey noted that 51 counties in the state already are certified as “work-ready.”)

• Encourage workers to obtain “some high-quality credential, including some education beyond high school … to get a good job in the area.”

• Encourage “working learners. I think the new normal among employers is to help people become working learners….”

Ramsey then noted that $1.4 billion per year in local wages are paid in the Asheville metro area. 

“Healthcare continues to be strong,” he said. “All of our healthcare organizations are really struggling for people. It’s a nationwide problem. That’s something we need to do a better job in.

“Hospitality and tourism continue to be strong for us — and they’re higher paying than the state average. 

“Our skilled trades sector continues to be strong....

“One reason for high housing costs is shortage of workers.” For instance, he said, “We have fewer people working in construction today” than several years ago.

Ramsey then asked, rhetorically, “What can employers do in a tight labor market?”

The 10 answers he offered are the following:

•. Focus on retention

• Expand net

• Upskill existing workers

• Automate

• Build partnerships

• Focus on overlooked populations

• Eliminate unnecessary job requirements

• Get flexible

• Improve culture

• Increase wages

During a question-and-answer session after Ramsey’s presentation, an unidentified CIBO member asked if “there’s a lot of concern about the workforce participation rate?”

“So our labor force participation rate is going to go down, as baby boomers retire,” Ramsey replied. “That’s where we need strategies to support older workers.

“There are ways to increase the workforce participation rate, but it’s got to be really” astute. “It’s not an easy fix.

“Generally, that number will continue to go down because of demographics, because we’re getting older,” Ramsey said in concluding the Q&A session.



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