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Focus on hiring, retention as jobs top job-seekers 2:1 in area, agency leader tells CIBO
Wednesday, 18 January 2023 23:00


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The ratio of jobs to job-seekers in the Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area is about 2:1, meaning that, at this moment, hiring remains crucial for local employers, but that they also simulateously must rev up their effors to retain their workers in the future, according to Nathan Ramsey, head of a major local workforce development agency.

Ramsey made the aforementioned statement in an address on  “The State of the Local Economy” (i.e. the Asheville MSA), which he presented during the Jan. 6 breakfast meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners in UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center.

“Prior to the pandemic, the last couple of years, we did have a lot of employers talk about housing and transportation and childcare and things like that, but I think now more employers are recognizing that those things are barriers to them recruiting and retaining workers,” Ramsey said.

Meanwhile, a number of economists are forecasting a recession in the second half of 2023, calling it a consequence of the Fed’s succession of sharp rate hikes, Ramsey noted.

He added that officials project those increases will cause the unemployment rate to reach 4.6 percent by the end of the year.

The meeting — featuring two separate topics — drew just short of a standing-room-only turnout of more than 75 CIBO members, guests and government officials. 

Besides Ramsey’s address on the local economy, the meeting also featured an address on “the State of the Asheville Police Department,” which was given in two sections, with Asheville Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore sharing the city’s perspective, followed by Police Chief David Zack, who addressed this unit’s challenges from an APD persective. (See the Kilgore story on Page A1 and the Zack story on Page B8 for the two-part APD  report).

As for the local economy, Ramsey said that Asheville MSA — comprising Buncombe, Madison, Henderson and Transylvania counties — “added over 100,0000 jobs in 20 years” for a total of 472,341 jobs, as of July 2021. (Ramsey is the director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board and executive director of the Land of the Sky Regional Council.)

“Most of those folks (in the area’s popularity spike) are coming from somewhere else, because if we depended just on births and deaths, our population would be stagnant to declining, If you really look at it, we ... the Asheville MSA’s GDP ...  have doubled. 

“Currently we have the lowest unemployment rate in North Carolina for any metro — and Buncombe County is tied with Orange County” for that ranking.

The Asheville MSA’s total labor force, curently is 232,856,” Ramsey said, adding that “we have more people working than we did a year ago, with some fluctuations.”

As for the Asheville MSA’s jobless rate, he said Buncombe ranks lowest at 3 percent, while Transylvania with 3.6 percent is “is the highest (in unemployment” in our region.”

He added, “Largely, our region has basically completely recovered the labor force, compared to pre-pandemic.

“The (local) labor force before the pandemic was 233,366, as of February 2020, Ramsey noted. (The COVID-19 pandemic widely is considered to have started in March 2020.)

As of October 2022 — post-pandemic, we (Buncombe) were 500 workers below the labor force (record) prior to the pandemic. Our region (now) is also 2,535 jobs above the number of individuals employed — 213,346 jobs —  prior to the pandemic.

“Overall, our labor force has recovered. We’re really back to where we were in February 2020. Again, more people working. We’ve sort of flat-lined — we were increasing a little faster.

“Again, historically, we’re down at our historic average.

“In September 1999, our region got down to 2 percent for the region — and Buncombe County got down to 1.9 percent.

As for the number of unemployed people, Ramsey said, “We have about 7,000 jobless people in Buncombe County. That’s just a natural phenomenon. We’ve been really blessed not to have too many closings. 

“Average hourly earnings for our region” in November 2022 was $27.88, he noted. “That’s below the nation and the state, so we trail the rate a little bit.

“We’re still below the state and nation in median household income in our region.

“If our economy was the same as the state as a whole, our wages would be about 2 percent more than they are.

“The biggest disparity in our wages are in our highest paying sectors and highest-playing jobs. Our high-wage jobs pay a lot less than in other areas. It’s not that our lower paying jobs in tourism are bringing the average down.

“We are dealing with the demographic trend of the baby boomers retiring. Who makes more money? The people who change jobs make more money? Every employer in our community is trying to hire your people. Most people in the labor force are already working. 

“One of the best thing employers can do is really focus on retention. It really doesn’t do much to hire people and then they go out the back door.,

“I think now more employers are recognizing that childcare, etc., are more important in retaining employees.

“The wages haven’t kept up with housing. Our wages are lower than average for the state and nation.

“Only two areas where wages are higher (in the Asheville metro area) are health care and hospitality.

“You might say, ‘Employers need to pay more.’ But a lot of employers say, ‘We can’t afford to pay more.’

“Generally, small businesses struggle to keep up because they don’t have as much access to capital” as the larger firms.

“As of November 2022, there were 14,484 unique jobs postings in the area,” Ramsey said.

Further, Ramsey said, “If there’s two employees for every job opening, there’s going to be a lot of competiton.

“I think the challenges of the APD” in finding officers are shared, to some degree, by all other employers. “If you’re an employer in this room who is not having problems attracting and retaining employees ... If you are, then we need to listen to you.”

Returning to the topic of the local economy, Ramsey then reported, “Manufacturing certainly bounced back from the losses during the recession.

“We have seen a steady increase in manufaturing jobs

“Health care is an area really struggling.

“Also education is struggling.

“We have less construction workers now than we did in 2007, a challenge, especially considering our population growth.”

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

He then listed the following possible answers to the aforementioned question:

• Focus on retention

• Expand your net (connections)

• “Upskill” existing workers

• Automate

• Build partnerships

• Focus on overlooked populations

• ‘Eliminate unnecessary job requirements

• Get flexible

• Improve the work culture

• Increase wages

At that point, he noted, “It’s more than wages... Talk to a job-seeker and see what they say.”

Ramsey, a Republican, then quipped, “Look at the U.S. House (of Representatives), they can’t find a speaker.” (Ramsey’s joke triggered much laughter from the CIBO attendees. 

(In the 15th round of voting, Rep. Kevin McCarthey, R-Calif., eked out a victory to become speaker of the House early Nov. 7 morning.)

During a brief question-and-answer period following Ramsey’s address, CIBO member Mac Swicegood asked, “Have you got a way to track the number of people who are working from their houses?”

Ramsey responded by noting, “Remote work has been beneficial for employers. But its also been a challenge for employers. We have two job-seekers for every available job...

“When you think of housing ... with housing costs so high ... remote workers” are feasible option to fill jobs locally,” Ramsey said, in concluding the Q&A session.



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