ATLANTA – The state’s emerging opioid crisis may be partly to blame for the workforce shortages stymieing local efforts to attract new jobs.
This was one of the revelations from the second meeting of the state’s new House Rural Development Council, which met recently in Toccoa. The group of legislators is tasked with identifying potential policy fixes for the economic challenges facing the rural Georgia.
“We have a drug problem in Stephens County, and it’s a big one and it does impact the labor force,” Barry Roberts, director of operations for ASI Southeast, told legislators Friday during a meeting that was livestreamed.
ASI Southeast employs more than 400 people, making it the largest private employer in the county that sits on the South Carolina border. The company, which makes steel and polymer products used in commercial restrooms, has invested $50 million in Georgia in the last decade, Roberts said.
“We want to stay here. We want to thrive here,” Roberts said. “But we do feel like there are some obstacles in the way right now.”
The substance-abuse problem, which manifests itself at ASI Southeast as failed drug tests, is one issue that “needs to be on your radar,” he told state lawmakers.
It’s not a problem unique to the northeast Georgia community, though. Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is monitoring the growing statewide impact of the opioid crisis.
“I’ve talked to my peers up in the Northeast, where this epidemic started, about the impact it’s having on the economy and their workforce, and we’re starting to see that here,” Clark said.
Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas, said it’s a harsh reality that more people need to face.
“I would challenge you – these local industries and leaders – to stand in front of your people and say, ‘Your brothers and sisters and sons and daughters are on drugs, they will not work, and we need their help to be successful to support this community,’ he told Roberts.
But it’s not just the drugs diluting the pool of job candidates, Roberts said.
ASI Southeast has also struggled to find job candidates with so-called soft skills, such as good customer service, and those who understand basic math concepts, Roberts said.
And when they find out-of-town prospects, it’s tough finding a place for them to live due to a lack of housing options.
Right now, the company has 26 entry-level positions that it has not been able to fill. Another local employer, Osborne Wood Products, has eight positions that have gone unfilled.
“Stephens County is a county that is starving for employees,” said Leon Osborne, CEO of Osborne Wood Products.
That’s been a common refrain among local economic developers across Georgia as state officials explore why the economic growth has largely bypassed rural communities.
About 64 percent of job growth in the state from 2012 to 2014 happened in metro Atlanta, according to a 2016 study from Georgia State University. That was enough to nearly return the metro area to where it was before the recession.
But only about a quarter of rural counties had more jobs in 2014 than they did before the economic downturn.
Clark presented legislators with other troubling trends.
As many as 74 rural counties are expected to experience population losses in the next decade.
If nothing is done, the job growth in rural Georgia will be “an anemic 1.6 percent” by 2026, with some counties losing more jobs.
About 68 percent of third graders in rural counties are not reading at grade level.
About one-third of working-age adults in rural Georgia do not have a job.
“I’ve been in a couple of communities where this is as high as 56 percent of the adults in their communities are not working today,” Clark said.
The council’s next meeting, which will be held in July in the Thomasville area, will focus on health care and developmental disabilities.
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for The Valdosta Daily Times and CNHI's newspapers and websites.