More than 650 come to 'Caldwell is Hiring' job fair

Apr. 05, 2013 @ 07:32 AM

The past two years of post-recession recovery have brought little financial prosperity for Willie Ferguson.

A father of two, he has strung together a modest income working odd jobs as a handyman around the county after leaving Fairfield Chair Company, where he worked full time for about 20 years, to recover from a series of deaths involving friends and a family member.

“I’ve had hardship,” said Ferguson, who lives in Lenoir. “You got to have a job to feed your family.”

But at the “Caldwell is Hiring” job fair Thursday, when nearly two dozen employers sought applicants for hundreds of job openings, the prospect of financial stability was not as dim for Ferguson, who has spent recent weeks going up and down U.S. 321 in search of work.

“I’m just tryin’ to get something in walkin’ distance,” he said before approaching, with a strut in his step, a table of representatives from packing manufacturer Sealed Air, which had nearly 20 job openings.

“You know,” he added as he looked back, “in case your car breaks down.”

The seemingly dire circumstances faced by Ferguson did not reflect the financial condition of most of the more than 650 job-seekers who, despite wintry weather, traveled from across the county to the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center.

Still, the presence of 23 employers – ranging from Google and Caldwell Memorial Hospital to Clark Tire and Rue 21, a clothing retailer with several locations across the region – seeking to fill nearly 700 full- and part-time jobs carried significance for many seeking a career change.

“I’m ready to just get out of the house,” said Traci Montville, 22, who has spent the past two years working as a freelance technical writer out of her home near Green Mountain, in Kings Creek Township. “I’ll work anywhere.”

The job fair was considered by some a litmus test for the condition of the job market in a county where the furniture industry, once largely shielded against downturns in the national economy, has not fully recovered since the housing market collapsed several years ago. 

The reality of what economic development officials say was a steady loss totalling 8,000 to 10,000 jobs as a result of technological advancements and outsourcing manufacturing jobs abroad over the past decade has forced economic development groups to bring change to the job market.

A shift in the workforce already has materialized in the past year, over which more than a dozen new businesses have announced plans to create some 700 jobs in a county where about 4,000 people remain out of work. Among them is manufacturer Woodgrain Millwork Inc., which offered nearly 150 openings at the job fair.

Still, some companies are struggling to find qualified candidates for vacancies in roles largely requiring technical skills.

Wayne Houser, operations manager at West Carolina Freightliner Inc., said the truck parts dealer has spent recent months “constantly looking” for qualified diesel technicians. He explained that the appeal of such professions, once common among older generations, has faded in recent years.

“It’s not a glorious field” to younger generations, Houser said.

Nonetheless, the turnout at the job fair, though significantly less than the some 1,700 who attended last year, was a sign of hope for many, including Deborah Murray, executive director of the county Economic Development Commission, whose organization has helped organize the twice-a-year job fair for the past three years. Other organizers include Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute and JobLink, a job-placement service run at the college, which also offered a preparatory class before “Caldwell is Hiring” teaching interviewing and other skills.

“You know how important it is to these people,” Murray said before offering a dose of encouragement to a group of applicants filing out of the center’s auditorium, where organizers helped them fill out job-placement forms.

The level of importance was not lost on Tamarira Willingham. Biding her time in a domestic violence shelter in the area for the past eight months, after moving from Tennessee, her perseverance to find work has not wavered.

“Last night, I was tired,” said Willingham, 23, who spent hours “running from this place to that place” to find an outfit for the job fair. “I still made it, though.”