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Haslam's Most Visible (& Whimsical) Jobs Program So Far Targets Rural Unemployment

By Eleanor Boudreau

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wkno/local-wkno-972163.mp3

Memphis, TN – Around Tennessee's biggest city, Memphis, the unemployment rate is close to 10 percent, but it's even worse outside the city. There are places in rural Tennessee where 20 percent of workers are without a job; and when a Goodyear tire factory in Obion County closes this year about 1,900 jobs will be subtracted from the already flagging employment opportunities outside the state's big cities.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development has a new fleet of roving buses that aim to help people in remote areas find work. The buses are driven by career counselors and aptly called Career Coaches.

Darla Williams is a career counselor and a driver with the West Tennessee bus. Williams says many rural residents don't have a career center in their area.

"Gas prices the way it is, it just makes it more affordable for them, for us to come to them," Williams said.

On a recent hot, Thursday afternoon the Career Coach pulled up in front of the public library in rural Decatur County. Tables line the inside walls of the coach and there are rolling chairs that are held in place with bungee cords when the bus is in motion. The bus has Internet on board, 10 laptop computers, a printer and a fax machine. Le-Manuell Meadows saw the coach on his way to the library and walked in.

"I'd rather be working," Meadows said, "because, the way times are going now, it's hard to live, so, you gotta have some kind of income to live the right way you wanna to live."

Meadows' last job was in an Autozone warehouse. For his next job he says he will take whatever kind of work he can get. He does, however, have one significant constraint.

"I'm really trying to stay in the area because of the way gas is right now," Meadows said. "And we can't ride too heavy because we got--she has,--her OB appointments. We are having a baby!" he laughs. "We don't really have money for gas, so I would rather find something as close as I can."

The career counselor working with Meadows finds a non-descript laborer position in her database and encourages him to apply.

The Career Coaches are the most visible--and whimsical--of Governor Bill Haslam's jobs programs so far. Like many politicians across the country, Haslam didn't run on just "jobs." He ran on jobs, jobs, jobs. At the coaches' roll out the Governor said, "We're excited about the potential and we want to do what we can to address the unemployment needs."

But some have questions about what the Governor--or anyone else--can do to boost employment in rural communities in the face of a changing American landscape.

"West Tennessee was developed, as much of the country, for agriculture. Well, the agriculture is still big, we've got just as many acres in cultivation, it's just there are not NEAR as many farmers," said Parker Cashdollar. Cashdollar is also aptly named he's a professor of economics at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

After many farm-jobs were snatched by machines, medium-sized factories moved into the area and one-time farm-hands found themselves making things like shirts and shoes on assembly lines, but those factories have been packing up and leaving, many headed overseas. Cashdollar says the closing of the Goodyear plant this year will be a big blow to rural West Tennessee.

"I don't see what is going to come along to replace some of the industry we have lost," he said.

Cashdollar doesn't think a career coach is it.

"There is not enough employment is the first problem, but this is tacked, tying into a problem," he continued, "Numbers keep coming out showing how training and education is less in the rural areas. That's true. But, part of it is because the more educated have left. I mean, thousands of folks come through UT Martin, and have for decades, and graduate, and most of them go somewhere else. They don't find jobs in West Tennessee."

Cashdollar says the dilemma is a bit like the chicken and the egg--what do you create first, the jobs or the workforce?

"You are not going to get 300 people well educated in a high-tech field and say now you stay right here in West Tennesseee and we'll get a plant over here," Cashdollar said. "It doesn't work that way, I'm afraid."

Of course, Cashdollar doesn't think the career coach will hurt anything. He wishes he had another solution, but, he says, he doesn't.