High-tech heaven?

by Lisa Watters

The Industry Standard, a news magazine covering the Internet economy, has rated Asheville as the number-three place in the U.S. for companies to locate if they “want to get away from it all — but still be part of the action.” That’s good news, says Dave Porter of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce — not only because such companies pay well and are relatively nonpolluting, but because they help fill the gaps in the local economy left by the exodus of traditional manufacturing jobs in recent years.

“The rating is right in line with the efforts and marketing plans of our Information Technology Council,” said Porter, the Chamber’s vice president of economic development. “This should help us get the word out that the Asheville area is an outstanding place to locate high-tech firms.”

In making its ratings, The Industry Standard considered six elements that these “new economy” firms are looking for in a community: proximity to jet planes, wired infrastructure, natural beauty, low population density, a favorable business climate and plenty of golf courses. San Luis Obispo, Calif. was the magazine’s top pick, followed by Naples, Fla. Bozeman, Mont. and Santa Rosa, Calif. round out the top five.

The Asheville Area Information Technology Council is a panel of local technology experts spanning the public, private and nonprofit sectors. The group was formed last August by the Asheville Chamber and the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission as part of an effort to attract high-tech firms to the area.

Show me the talent

It’s not always easy for local businesses and industries to find the specialized workers they need in the immediate labor pool. When that happens, local companies end up having to look outside WNC to fill job vacancies. But where do they look? To help businesses find the people they need, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission are launching the Talent Bank Program, which aims to create a database of nonlocal people with specific industrial skills not available here.

Program coordinator Sharon Willen, the Chamber’s director of business and industry services, says the project is still in its infancy.

“What we were first charged with doing is finding out if there were needs that could not be met by the local labor pool — any specialized jobs or job skills that are the same from industry to industry but aren’t really readily available locally.”

After visiting dozens of businesses and plants and talking to employment services, government agencies and local leaders, Willen says she found a variety of types of jobs that industry is having trouble filling, including “skilled [workers] with three to five years’ experience in particular industry sectors … like injection molding, blow molding or metal fabricating. … [Or] an international marketing position — there may not be someone locally who has that kind of skill.” She also mentioned various types of programmers and engineers.

To start addressing the situation, Willen has pulled together a steering committee that includes representatives from manufacturing and service industries, staffing and employment agencies, government and education. The group met earlier this month to talk about the program.

In April, the committee will meet again to discuss how job openings could best be posted to a talent-bank system and what such a system might look like.

In May, the committee will come at the question from the other end, discussing job-candidate information and how to post and use it.

Because there are too many interested parties to have everyone sit around a table together, says Willen, the committee has established an e-mail communication process to enable noncommittee members to contribute to the discussions.

By June, the committee hopes to present a proposal to the Commission and Chamber leadership on how the talent bank should be designed.

Even when there are local people with the needed skills, there may not be enough of them to fill all the vacant slots, or to give employers a choice of several candidates, Willen notes.

Despite the challenges, however, local response to the concept has been positive in many quarters, she says, including people looking for work, organizations that help place people with disabilities, the public-school systems and their career coordinators. “Lots of people have come forward and said, ‘What a great idea. We really need a way to match people with jobs locally,’ ” says Willen. “While the original intention of the Economic Development Commission was to help find talent that isn’t available locally, that really has broadened because of the interest of local people in surfacing local talent. So we’re trying our best to meet both of these objectives.”

But, she stresses, “The focus still remains helping industry to fill job openings as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Willen also thinks a talent bank could be a good selling point when recruiting industries that offer high-paying jobs. “They may be afraid to move here, because how could they recruit someone?” she explains. “But if we could show that we have a good system for attracting talent to the area, companies might be more willing to relocate here. It’s one aspect of an area they look at.”

Another possibility is establishing a data base of former area residents who would like to return if they could find a job that utilized their skills. Says Willen, “Right now there’s a group of Leadership Asheville volunteers who are researching how we can do a good job staying in touch with graduates of the local high schools, community colleges, UNCA. … We’re particularly interested in reaching alumni because, very often, young people who go to school out of town and then move away … don’t come back. But five years out, they might get hungry for the mountains or feel like they’d like to live closer to their families [and] they might be looking for job opportunities.”

To contact Willen at the Chamber, call 258-6101.

Addressing the issues

When Stephanie Coleman opened ISSUES International Newsstand last October, her goal was to “provide a space for people, no matter who they are, to come and find something that speaks to them.”

The store retails magazines, domestic and international newspapers, used and new books, as well as locally produced art and gift items. The “international” element is important, says Coleman, “because ISSUES is more than just mine. What my issues are … [is] different from what yours are. They can be geographical, racial, personal. … I wanted [the store] to speak to all the issues.”

Originally located on Eagle Street, ISSUES moved to a larger two-room space at 32 Biltmore Ave. (next to the Fine Arts Theater) in February. The business, says Coleman, combines her passion for words and her knack for helping people find the right information.

A quick scan of the magazine racks discloses a wide range of subject matter: everything from politics, gardening and auto repair to health, meditation and personal finance. Alongside more mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone, Newsweek and People, you’ll find High Times, Poets & Writers, Z Magazine, Curve (a magazine for lesbians) and the hard-to-find XXL (a magazine for African-Americans, though Coleman notes that people of other races are also buying it).

Not surprisingly, Coleman’s newspaper selection also covers a broad spectrum, including The Kansas City Star, The Washington Times, The Financial Times and The Village Voice as well as international papers like the The Prague Post and The Jerusalem Post.

And while there’s diversity to be found in the books Coleman sells, there’s a definite focus on African-American authors. “There isn’t a store around that really focuses on African-American literature,” she explains. “I want to be able to fill that niche.”

When people walk into her store, says Coleman, they “can see that there’s something else [in the US.] other than what we see when we go into mainstream bookstores. And that’s important to me. … That’s what makes [this store] different.”

Coleman’s interest in disseminating information and addressing issues of concern to the community goes beyond the written word, however; she also plans to host lectures, discussions, monthly book reviews and readings of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

Both her passion for reading and her interest in operating a bookstore are rooted in her childhood.

“As a child, my fondest memory was [reading] the local paper,” Coleman recalls. “My brother, myself and my two sisters all liked to read the paper. But being four of us — and only one paper being delivered — there was always this competition thing. We created these rules. … Whoever called the paper first got to read it first; whoever called ‘paper second’ got it next.”

But Coleman doesn’t remember being pressured to read the paper. “We watched [our mother] reading it, and so we started reading it,” she says simply.

“To this day, we are all avid newspaper readers,” she continues. “You read not just to see what’s being said, but what’s not being said. How can you know what’s really going on if you don’t read the paper?”

Coleman’s interest in bookstores, on the other hand, was inspired by the television soap opera As the World Turns. She remembers watching one of the show’s characters who owned a bookstore talking to customers and handling books all day and thinking to herself, “That would be so cool!”

“I laugh about it now,” she reveals, adding,”You never know what’s going to stick with you.”

Two years spent working at a Waldenbooks store in Wichita, Kan., confirmed her interest. Says Coleman: “It was one of my best experiences — it stayed with me. It had a lot to do [with being] around what I enjoyed.”

Coleman moved to Charlotte in 1996 to manage a gift shop. In ’98 she moved to Asheville to work as a program coordinator for the Mountain Microenterprise Fund. And after two years of helping others start and grow their own businesses, Coleman decided it was finally time to make her own dream come true.

“I’ve been planning on ISSUES for many years,” she says. “I saw an opportunity to get it started and seized it.”

ISSUES is open 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday thru Saturday, and 1-7 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, call 251-0049.

More jobs for Asheville?

The latest poll of public and private employers by Manpower Inc. shows that almost one-third of local employers are planning to hire additional staff this spring.

“After polling local employers, the Employment Outlook Survey found that 30 percent are intending to add personnel during the spring months, 7 percent foresee labor cutbacks, and 63 percent will stay with current payrolls,” said Pat Worley of Manpower’s Asheville office.

During the same period a year ago, local employers were somewhat more bullish: 47 percent said they would hire more staff, and none expected any decreases.

But according to the figures released by Manpower, Asheville’s employment prospects this spring still look slightly brighter than those for the state and nation as a whole. The figures for North Carolina show 27 percent of employers planning to continue adding workers and 8 percent expecting cutbacks. Nationally, those numbers are 28 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

Over Manpower’s 25-year history, these quarterly polls have proven effective in identifying employment trends, said a source at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.


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