Year in Review: WNC looks back on employment in 2021

A-B Tech advanced manufacturing
SHORT-HANDED: Employers across all sectors in Western North Carolina, including manufacturing, are having difficulties hiring enough workers. Photo courtesy of A-B Tech

Those who want to make $20 an hour in Western North Carolina could become a trainee of the Asheville Police Department — a job that involves chasing criminals, serving legal papers to disgruntled citizens and handling complaints over homeless residents. Alternatively, they could become a carhop at the Sonic Drive-In on Airport Road in Arden, which (aside from the potential roller-skating wipeout) poses considerably less risk to life and limb.

Higher wages in unexpected roles are just one sign of the upheaval COVID-19 and its fallout have caused to WNC’s economic landscape. Perhaps most striking is the reduction of low-wage work in Buncombe County.

According to Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit research project based at Harvard University, the number of workers in Buncombe County earning less than $27,000 annually fell by 50.4% between January 2020 and August. The number represents the biggest drop of any county in North Carolina and a larger percentage reduction than that at the height of pandemic shutdowns in April 2020.

Meanwhile, area employers struggle to fill jobs across the wage spectrum. As of July, according to Mountain Area Workforce Development Board Director Nathan Ramsey, over 23,000 job openings existed in the Asheville metro region. Even if every currently unemployed person in the area’s labor force took one of those jobs, about 14,000 openings would still remain.

As WNC heads into yet another year of economic uncertainty, Xpress asked regional business leaders, government figures and laborers about their takeaways from 2021 in the world of work. 

How has 2021 changed how you feel about your job or industry?

“The pandemic created an opportunity for people to pay more attention to the food system. The opportunity for agriculture is a move towards holistic, triple-bottom-line production models that are good for the environment, humane for livestock and improve the lives of consumers and farmers.” — Jamie Ager, owner, Hickory Nut Gap Farm

“I think one of the largest gaps we’ve identified in how we can support small businesses is in the human resources space — the majority of our brewery members are smaller businesses, with owners often wearing a multitude of hats (brewer, sales manager, bartender, etc.). As their businesses evolve, this usually means bringing on additional staff and/or delegating some of these responsibilities. My hope is that in collaboration with our HR adviser, some of our allied trade members and our more seasoned brewery members, we can provide education and resources that will hopefully make folks’ lives easier as they grow their businesses.” — Leah Rainisexecutive director, Asheville Brewers Alliance

“I am disheartened by the tenor of our political dialogue. While lies, exaggerations and misleading statements have always been an element of our governance and elections, they have become mainstream and are coming from high-ranking Republican elected officials and party leaders. And too few traditional Republicans are objecting, apparently happy to remain in power rather than speak the truth and risk the consequences. Party power and fealty to our former president have become the altar on which everything else — honestly, civility, science, reality — is sacrificed, and that prevents us from finding real solutions to real problems.” — Sen. Julie Mayfield, N.C. Senate District 49

“It has become apparent that nonprofit support services, like the free legal aid and access to health care that Pisgah Legal Services offers, are as important now as they ever have been. Working to help folks access health insurance, we heard from many people this past year who have never accessed our services before — people who were not familiar with accessing free assistance from the many local nonprofits who form a safety net of services supporting our community. More folks now have an awareness of the need for social services, and really the need for community support.” — Shannon Cornelius, health justice program director, Pisgah Legal Services

“My work as an artist has changed a lot in 2021. Artists are in great demand during this time due to the pandemic and quarantine. We find more people wanting more of a direct contact with the artist to see how impactful it is in our everyday lives. Art is becoming more essential to emotional healing.” — Jenny Pickens, artist/educator

“This year has given me a distinct sense of what becomes possible through genuine collaboration, and thus a new standard for growth that prioritizes creativity and relationships in the community.” — Clare Hubbard, community paramedic program manager, Buncombe County

“It feels like a time that we have to remember to be gentle with each other. People are burned out and stressed, and knowing that has changed the way I interact. I try to expect less and appreciate more — not always an easy task!” — Jessie Landl, executive director, Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County

What have staffing shortages meant for your own work and the local economy?

“The pandemic shined a light on underlying issues that already existed. So, while the staffing crisis is impacting every sector, those already dealing with workforce challenges are especially hard hit. We’re seeing this in the local early care and education field with a critical shortage of teachers and staff for child care and preschool. A silver lining is that we’re seeing some promising policy and funding strategies at the federal, state and local levels to support this critical workforce.” — Rachael Nygaard, strategic partnerships director, Buncombe County

“The restaurant business has always been a labor-heavy industry, and we’re seeing that it’s not sustainable, especially with no affordable housing in our area and the growth of more restaurants, breweries and hotels all relying on an ever-smaller group of people for staffing. It’s definitely a long-term concern for our area, but it’s happening in every cool town that people want to live in.” — Mike Rangel, president, Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co.

“There are the obvious impacts we’re seeing across the food and beverage landscape — sometimes having to close early or take a day off to give staff a break, limited menus, etc. As far as how this impacts the Asheville Brewers Alliance specifically, I think workforce development will feature heavily in our educational offerings going forward.” — Leah Rainis

How can workers best seize the opportunities created by the current local employment situation?

“Build their skill sets, find their passion, collaborate with like minds/hearts and create the opportunities that don’t exist.” — DeWayne Barton, owner, Hood Huggers International

“The current employment climate has a yin and a yang. There are lots of places to work, and employers are struggling to keep up. It would be great if team members could see themselves as partners in their business and talk to their employer about what they need. In this conversation, employers could also share what they need. It can be a win-win situation, but it requires some vulnerability from everybody. Right now, workers can work the jobs they want and plan for creative long-term engagement.” — J Hackett, founder, Black Wall Street AVL

“Live your dreams now before it’s too late. The corporate complex of work is not doing it for folks anymore. People have been treated as disposable for too long. Invest in yourself and your dreams — whatever that is to you. I think that’s the new motto.” — Cliff B. Worsham, musician

What surprised you most about your industry this year?

“Probably the tone-deaf behavior of my own union. While I’m grateful to be a union member, I’ve been on the administrative side of things in the past, so I’m empathetic to the difficulties that theater management has to work through to keep regional theaters alive. Actors’ Equity has always been a bit clueless regarding the real-world situation out here in the “regions” and how difficult it is to keep regional theaters afloat. Yes, protecting members from COVID-19 is important, but the over-the-top protocols they’ve demanded from regional theaters have been ridiculous, unaffordable and paralyzing.” — Scott Treadway, actor

“COVID-19 has challenged us to become more flexible and be more understanding of each other. In this egalitarian kind of way, everyone was impacted, so everyone had to adjust. (Pivot!) There was no playbook for how to keep everything going amidst the backdrop of the pandemic, and we’ve all been kind of figuring it out as we go along. For me, this has been incredibly humbling. I noticed that because everyone has been called upon to practice so much flexibility and learning themselves, people seem to be giving more grace to one another when they need it.” — Rachael Nygaard

“Its resilience. Despite the state of suspension the music industry is reemerging from during the pandemic, artists and overall creative work have forged on unabated, almost supercharged. Creative expression is impervious to industrial trends, and the commodity of art is not art itself.” — Claude Coleman Jr., co-owner, SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s

“I’ll tell you what didn’t surprise me: How quick musicians pulled it all together and got back on the road and throwing shows again. Some of the most hardworking folks I’ve met in my life.” — Cliff B. Worsham


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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