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East Texas Rising: How the local job market adapted to the pandemic

Experts in economic development and education discuss the challenge of keeping the economy booming and the obstacles that could slow future growth in the region

TYLER, Texas — More Texans are working than ever before, and the economy in East Texas has more than recovered all the jobs that were lost due to the coronavirus pandemic. But experts say the local job market can feel like a boom and a bust at the same time.

All this month, CBS19 is examining the growth in East Texas – the positive and the negative. In this part of the series, we look at how the local economy has adapted and improved because of the pandemic, as well as what may hold East Texas back from continued expansion.

“With workforce development,” Dr. Juan Mejia explained, “comes social mobility, for our community's social stability, and also regional prosperity.”

East Texas has its fair share of oil and gas, but the most important pipeline in the regional economy flows through the campuses of our schools and colleges.

Tyler Junior College has 12,000 students on-campus and a couple thousand more enrolled in online or dual-credit programs. “We're at about almost 50% of those that are going straight into workforce preparation,” Dr. Mejia, President of TJC, said.

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, almost 2,500 more East Texans had jobs in September 2022 (the most recent month for which data was available) than were employed in January 2020, prior to the pandemic.

“Three years ago,” Shane Pace recalled, “I wouldn't believe that we'd be in the position that we're in. I think when the pandemic set in, there was a fear that kind of came over everyone. No one really knew what it was, what the next day was going to look like.”

Pace is the President of the Jacksonville Economic Development Corporation, the organization that recruits businesses into the city. He said East Texas has a balanced economy, led by its mix of agriculture, medical facilities, and higher education, but the industrial companies in Jacksonville kept the city moving in the early days of the pandemic when other places sputtered.

“Those are jobs that require people to be in, they can't work from home,” Pace stated. “They can't do remote work, they have to be in the building, manufacturing those products.”

And there is room for more. Jacksonville’s Norman Industrial Park has shovel-ready sites, which Pace said many cities cannot offer.

Tyler is one of them. But that is why the Tyler Economic Development Corporation and Smith County Commissioners Court recently agreed to turn 412 acres situated between Interstate 20 and the UT Health North Campus Tyler into an industrial park. TEDC says a big company is already lined up to buy a third of the land, investing $30 million and creating 100 jobs.

RELATED: COVID-19 federal funding to be used for business park in Smith County

Jacksonville does not have access to an interstate freeway, which Pace said precludes some businesses from considering it. I-20 has been a boon for the cities that border it. Longview claimed a large victory when The Gap built its distribution center there, promising 1,200 jobs.

Shelbie Glover, President and CEO of the Lindale Area Chamber of Commerce, said her city also benefits greatly from the interstate.

“FedEx and Target distribution, both have thrived during this market, because more people are ordering online,” she stated. “And they're shipping more.”

She also mentioned that health care has been a growing sector in Lindale, including the new CHRISTUS emergency room that opened in October. But Lindale is a microcosm for the region, growing and thriving, but not without trouble spots.

“I mean, if you drive up and down the street, you're gonna see every restaurant has a help wanted sign,” Glover said.

The unemployment rate in East Texas was higher than the statewide average in September according to the Texas Workforce Commission, but Glover said lots of businesses are struggling to hire.

“Baby boomers decided to exit the workforce and retire and probably retire earlier than they might have If COVID hadn't happened,” she said. “And there's a lot more opportunities to work from home now. And so we're seeing a lot of home-based businesses, and multilevel marketing opportunities that are great for people, but not necessarily great for our businesses.”

Adam Morrow, the Director of Recruiting and Professional Staffing for Express Employment Professionals in Tyler, believes there are several barriers either keeping people out of the labor force or leading them to choose remote jobs and gig work.

“If you're a single mom, looking to go to work, it's a real barrier to try to find childcare that's available and affordable,” he explained.

“Parents, especially moms in general, are a lot of them have come out of the workforce,” Glover added. “And they're staying home raising children, because they can't afford childcare."

RELATED: Child care centers offer lessons that schools can adapt as classes begin

Glover said the lack of available land is another problem, because some companies can’t find the space they need if they want to move existing operations to East Texas. But while spreading out is beneficial for businesses, it can be detrimental for workers.

“Another barrier might be transportation,” Morrow stated. “You know, as inflation increases, it might be harder to keep a car and work in order to get to the jobs that you're trying to get to.”

Glover agreed. “And you think about the cost of commute,” she mentioned, “maybe (if you work) in Lindale it's not a very expensive cost of commute. But if you're commuting to Tyler, or commuting, you know, other parts of East Texas, it can be an expensive commute. And if you've been doing it for two years at home, if it's not broke, why fix it?”

The other substantial problem the experts worry could hold the East Texas economy back is the availability of broadband internet. A handful of companies have entered the Tyler and Longview markets recently and started building fiber networks, while the Deep East Texas Council of Governments is planning a service of its own.

Pace said the lack of high-speed internet in many areas may prevent some companies from starting or moving here. “If we were to bring a data center in today, do we have the capability of serving them?” he asked. “I don't know that we do.”

The State of Texas has also launched new initiatives since the pandemic began to increase funding and planning for broadband networks in rural or underserved communities. That was a legislative priority in the 2021 regular legislative session in response to the increased value of telemedicine services and the strain virtual schooling put on families without reliable home internet and connected devices.

Dr. Mejia believes the demand for bandwidth and the strain on schools’ technology will only increase. “When we look at our students that come to the campus,” he said, “it’s not one system that they log into, or they log in from. They have an iPad, a MacBook, a cell phone, an Apple Watch, all of a sudden, it’s multiple approaches.”

The kinds of companies that would build in the industrial parks in Jacksonville and Tyler often bring well-paying, skilled trade jobs, but Morrow said those workers in particular are hard to find right now.

“I know for sure here in Tyler, and other areas, they're working hard to offer trades tracks in high school to prepare people for that,” he added. “So I anticipate that might be different. But for now, it's definitely if you're thinking about getting into that is a good time.”

Glover mentioned that she has seen an enhanced emphasis on career readiness from Lindale ISD, as well.

“In our office today—in fact, she's in the other room watching, but we have an intern. And so, we've had her all week. And Lindale High School actually has really stepped up their intern process this year. And that's the reason we're proud to be a part of that internship process. They're going out into our community into different businesses each week and getting to see what it's like to be in that business, to see it.

“And they are going out not just retail and restaurants, but they're getting insurance agents, they're going to the hospitals, they're going to realtors, and they went to Craig's Dirt Service and learned all about, you know, his heavy equipment operation. And so, they're going to do it all semester. And then next semester, they're going to increase the program even more to go deeper into those trades, and (showing students) that you can go right from Lindale High School onto a trade school if you choose to.”

Most of the workers getting into the trades go through a school like TJC, Trinity Valley Community College, Kilgore College, or one of the other two-year institutions in East Texas. They offer degree and certificate programs that are designed to quickly convert students into graduates and then workers. Dr. Mejia said TJC’s student population has gotten slightly older since the pandemic began, as more returning students look for different careers. He meets frequently with local business leaders to see what their needs will be and how the school can adapt to meet them.

“We know that many of the jobs that will be out here, a decade from now, we don't have the programs yet,” he said. “They're going to be coming up and developed.”

Mejia said TJC can create and implement a certificate program quickly if the local business community identifies a new need, but credit-bearing course can take up to a year because they require approval from the board of trustees and the school’s accrediting body.

But while companies may be excited about the prospect of expanding with the labor pool in East Texas, some executives hesitate to relocate their companies here because of the housing market. While prices are lower in East Texas than many regions, Pace said our housing supply is limited. While there are plenty of entry-level and luxury homes, he has heard that there is a limited number of available mid-level homes that a company might seek if it would move its existing employees into East Texas.

RELATED: How the housing boom is impacting East Texas

Glover said she and other regional business leaders got useful information from a recent Express Employment Professionals survey. It showed that just 26 percent of employees are not considering switching to a new job. Those who left for a new job in the last year cited career advancement as the top factor for their change, while those who stayed with the same company for the last 12 months cited workplace flexibility as the biggest reason for their satisfaction.

RELATED: The 4-day workweek gains steam — and workers would leave to get it.

Morrow said many workers reprioritized their lives during the pandemic and grew to value the flexibility they were forced into when capacity restrictions were in place.

“Smart businesses are trying to figure out how to how to work the best with their good employees,” he stated. “Fifty percent of employees right now in in the East Texas area have an option for some remote work. An example of flexibility that stuck, although many, many businesses and employees have found that working from home is not all it's cracked up to be. So we do see a return to the office, but with increased flexibility.

“I've also seen--we've asked businesses, what have they changed in their business to retain employees. And we've heard that 86% of East Texas businesses have improved their benefits in some way. And that also would include things like PTO or other ways that that they can be flexible with their employees.”

Morrow said, despite the hurdles facing East Texas and its businesses, the region is still primed for future growth. He said the new medical school being created at UT Tyler could usher in the area’s next era of opportunity. “We have a diversified economy. And it's a very attractive place to live,” he said. “So I think we're in a really good position for the future.”

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