Bad Rep or Bum Rap?: Officials Should Stop Shifting Blame to Our Local Workforce

Last week, Mitch Miller, CEO of Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, seemed to be telling WJHL that the reason NN, Inc. has not filled the number of jobs it promised—in exchange for nearly a million dollars in local tax breaks—is that the people here aren’t qualified for the jobs NN, Inc. is offering.[1]

In the Johnson City Press this past March, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said that our region has the reputation of a workforce that is “lacking” and “uneducated.”[2] It is important to see Mayor Eldridge’s comments in the context of a long marketing campaign about our region. Going back to least the 1880s, those with power in Appalachia have often undersold Appalachian workers, not just to outside corporations but, more damagingly, to ourselves. By telling us we are not as good as other workers, they have convinced our people to take less and be grateful we got even that.

Yet our nearest four-year-degree colleges—ETSU, Milligan, and Tusculum—graduate 3,000 students every year across 300 academic programs, including undergrad and graduate programs. Northeast State Community College awards 1,500 degrees and certificates every year, and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Elizabethton graduates another nearly 300. That’s nearly 5,000 people every year receiving degrees or certificates beyond high school.

Are our county and city commissions making deals with companies whose job requirements are outside of those hundreds of academic programs? If so, why would they? That seems like a strategy doomed to failure. If our dealmakers are giving tax breaks for jobs that don’t fit with our area’s academic programs, the powers that be need to change their strategy, or they need to get with the schools to develop different programs.

Is it that the quality of education offered by ETSU, Milligan, Tusculum, and Northeast State isn’t good enough to qualify graduates for jobs? While any education system has room for improvement, as an adjunct instructor at two of our local schools, I find it hard to believe we’re graduating students so unprepared to join the workforce.

If the quality of education here needs improvement, it’s probably because those who hold the purse strings never saw the point in making a real investment in a workforce they knew they were just going to sell as cheap labor. It’s time to change that. We need to invest in our schools, teachers, and support staffs, from K-12 through higher ed.

Is it that the degrees and quality are fine, but graduates are getting better offers outside of Washington County? The average student in Tennessee graduates from a four-year program $28,000 in the hole.[3] As pretty as our area is, if graduates are getting better offers elsewhere, that’s a tough thing to turn down.

For more than a hundred years, our labor has been sold to the lowest bidder while we are told we don’t deserve better. How does continuing to label us as a low-wage workforce serve to build up our region?

If we’re losing people to better opportunities elsewhere, we need to figure out how to create better opportunities here. That might take some outside-the-box thinking. It might take coming up with creative ways to create opportunities from within, rather than cutting deals with those from without: worker co-operative incubation, county- and municipal-owned companies—who knows what else we can come up with or learn from other areas that are turning their economic situations around.

In the meantime, our officials would do well to own up to the failure of the NN, Inc. tax breaks they negotiated rather than putting the blame on local workers.

I, myself, would truly like to better understand what’s going on. If you’ve graduated from ETSU, Milligan, Tusculum, Northeast State, or TCAT and went into the workforce, help us all better understand the situation. Drop me an email at or message my Facebook page and tell me about your experiences finding work after graduation: Were there enough opportunities in your field Washington County? Was there a lot of competition for those opportunities? How did the offered pay compare to average national salaries for that position? Did you find more or better opportunities elsewhere? Did you wind up moving to take a job? Did you stay to work here, and are you working in your career field or did you have to take something outside of your field of study?


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